One of the more remarkable results of South Carolina exit polling is the support Huckabee received from conservatives, especially from “very conservative” voters who made up 34% of the electorate. Overall, he led among conservatives generally (35%) and among the “very conservative” he did better (41%). In the eyes of a large number of these voters, he was the logical “conservative” alternative to McCain, just as Bush became that alternative eight years ago as he discovered that he needed to come at McCain from the right and played up to S.C. conservatives. (In the same bizarre way that conservatives bonded with Bush after this, the grateful anti-McCain forces might have started to see some virtue in the New Huckabee.) For those now fretting about the Return of McCain, I would note simply that it was the conservative establishment that managed to subvert Huckabee with their relentless campaign against him over the past six to eight weeks, and and it was the vanity campaign of Fred Thompson, which must now come to an end, that paved the way for McCain to win in South Carolina and so propel him towards the nomination.
The Great Conservative Hope, as Thompson has been treated and as he portrayed himself, facilitated the success of McCain, whom some sizeable proportion of the party and a huge part of the elite regard as unacceptable and more than a few see as not conservative. Well, in their rejection of Huckabee they repudiated the person who, like Bush, could have halted McCain’s advance and possibly crippled his campaign. Rather than rallying around someone who just pledged to be against amnesty, the Republicans of South Carolina (apparently half of whom favour deportation) who accepted the criticisms of Huckabee from Thompson and others have just empowered the one man most ardently committed to amnesty. Either this was the goal of tearing down Huckabee all along, or the vendetta against the Arkansan has just come back to bite the people who have regarded him as little more than a “pro-life Democrat.” Unwilling to tolerate the one who was probably the least objectionable, the GOP may have saddled itself with someone large numbers of Republicans will not be able to stand and who still supports amnesty in spite of everything. The Bob Dole campaign mark II is getting ready for launch.
Remarkably, those who voted for Romney in South Carolina have probably just ensured that their candidate loses sooner than if they had voted tactically for Thompson (or, somewhat more improbably, for Huckabee). Romney’s “delegate strategy” relies on the same divided field coming out of South Carolina that went into it. Rapid consolidation of the race around one or two main rivals makes that strategy less likely to succeed. Having recognised their failure to gain ground in South Carolina, the Romney campaign nonetheless did not foresee the danger that would come from their remaining supporters there splitting the opposition to the other two.