Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain scored hugely significant wins on Saturday in Nevada and South Carolina, wins which might set them on the road to the nomination.
Hillary is very likely to lose South Carolina because of the large black vote there. Had she lost Nevada too, she would have been badly handicapped going into Florida and Super Tuesday, having suffered two consecutive defeats. But now that she has won Nevada, she can lose South Carolina and still have momentum.
The run-up to South Carolina and the primary itself will feature constant focus on the African-American vote. Analysts and pundits will wonder if the wife of the “first black president” will lose to the real thing. She will. But, in a curious way, this will hurt Obama more than it will help him. It will create a racial subtext to a campaign that, until Iowa, didn’t have one. Watching blacks block vote for Obama will trigger a white backlash that will help Hillary win Florida and to prevail the week after.
McCain’s loss to Mitt Romney in Michigan, following his victory in New Hampshire, can now be written off to a hometown favorite triumphing. Romney’s win in Nevada is easily discounted because of the huge Mormon population there. Nobody else had a chance. His thrashing in South Carolina, however, severely weakens his candidacy and robs him of any momentum from Michigan.
The biggest loser in South Carolina was Rudy Giuliani. He now must face a resurgent McCain in Florida who steals his votes away. Rudy is a bit like the guy who went away to college and came home to find that some other guy had stolen his girl. McCain has used Rudy’s unaccountable absence from the campaign trail to take away the moderates and the national security conservatives to Rudy’s lasting detriment. Had McCain faltered in South Carolina, Rudy could have come on strong in Florida. But with McCain hitting the state soaring, Rudy is in bad shape.
Mike Huckabee will keep on being Huckabee and will win his share of the vote. His showing was good enough to assure that evangelicals won’t desert him and he has now gotten rid of the pesky Fred Thompson who was competing with him for southern votes. The former Arkansas governor will get his share of votes in each of the primaries and his share of delegates to go with them. Likely he will enter the convention without the nomination but with enough of a block of supporters to be a force to be reckoned with within the party. He would make a great VP for McCain.
McCain is, of course, the Republican who, apart from Rudy, would have the best chance to defeat Hillary. She can’t pull the old experience gambit on this long term Senator and his record on everything from global warming to corporate reform to campaign finance to torture to tobacco regulation to immigration reform makes it very hard for Hillary to defeat him. And, because of his appeal to Hispanics left over from his battle for the McCain-Kennedy immigration plan, he is ideally suited to take minority voters, burned by Hillary’s scorched earth policy against Barack Obama, away from the Democrats.
It’s too early to coronate McCain or Hillary but they have clearly moved to the level of front runners as a result of their victories on Saturday.