What happened
John McCain won the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, a state that derailed his White House ambitions in the 2000 race. McCain’s second hard-fought victory raises his prospects for securing the Republican nomination, even though rival Mitt Romney gained more delegates with his dominant win in the largely uncontested Nevada caucus the same day. Every GOP presidential nominee since 1980 has won South Carolina. “It took us a while, but what’s eight years among friends?” said McCain in his victory speech. (The New York Times, free registration)
What the commentators said
It looks like the GOP field has achieved some “belated winnowing,” said Noam Scheiber in The New Republic’s The Stump blog. With his victory in South Carolina, “McCain has effectively knocked Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani from the race.” McCain now has momentum going into the Florida primary, and he had a “good-enough showing” among GOP “party regulars” to ease electability fears. But as the “McCain-Romney race” plays out, the “single, fascinating question” will be how much McCain is still disliked in “elite GOP circles.” If you can answer that, “you’ll have your nominee.”
The Republican “elders seem ready to grit their teeth and go along with McCain” this time, said Robert Novak in The Washington Post (free registration). Republicans instinctively prefer to “seek an anointed candidate” rather than partake in “a Democrat-like free-for-all.” Democrats think McCain would be their strongest opponent in November, and it looks like the electability card might be enough for Republicans to put aside their “grudges.” Now, after South Carolina, “McCain by any measurement is the front-runner.”
Hold on, said John Dickerson in Slate. “It’s too soon to call McCain the front-runner.” Sure, South Carolina was a “spiritual victory” for him, but he wasn’t really able to close the sale among South Carolina’s “rank and file Republicans,” and Romney is winning in the delegates count. McCain could also run into trouble if the race becomes about the economy, which is “natural turf for Romney,” instead of national security, where McCain thrives.
It sure looks like “we’re talking about a general election race between John McCain and Hillary Clinton,” said Bob Frank in The Huffington Post, “just like we were at the beginning of this campaign.” Of course, “those of us who make the big bucks telling everyone what’s going on” have been wrong about everything else so far, so that prediction probably has a pretty short shelf life, too.
The pundits “have no idea what will happen next,” said John Harwood in The New York Times (free registration). Assuming the “contest keeps defying precedents,” pretty much anything could happen in Florida. If Rudy Giuliani wins there, who knows about Super Tuesday. In medical terminology, our predictions so far have resulted in “a trend line as flat as the EEG of a brain-dead pundit.”