Eight years ago, I witnessed a tale of two buses. In 2000, I traveled with Sen. John McCain on his "Straight Talk Express" bus as he pulled off a stirring, sur-prise victory in New Hampshire. A week later, I traveled on Gov. George W. Bush's bus through rural South Carolina as he told his inner circle: do what it takes to defeat McCain.
Now, eight years later, McCain has made himself the closest thing the Repub-licans have to a frontrunner by winning the South Carolina primary. He beat for-mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, which is all he had to do, to lay to rest the memory of 2000 and make himself the most plausible force for uniting a dispirited and divided party.
Watching the numbers rolls in here at NBC News, I recalled the way McCain had been destroyed by attacks in South Carolina. His campaign died there in the GOP primary eight years ago. Now, in what can only be regarded as poetic politi-cal justice, it is South Carolina that has given him a chance to claim the spot he was denied in 2000.
South Carolina was a must-win state for Huckabee more than it was for McCain. If he can't win South Carolina, it's hard to see where else Huck is set up to do so. He got a goodly share of evangelical voters, but not enough to win. Ac-cording to the NBC exit polls, Huckabee won only 41 percent of that vote. Former Sen. Fred Thompson did McCain a favor by siphoning some of that vote away from Huckabee. McCain himself got an astonishing 26 percent of the evangelical vote in the state.
In his concession speech, Huckabee hinted that if he had run his campaign the way George Bush had run his back in 2000—nasty and without what Huckabee called "honor"--he would have won. That in itself is an interesting commentary on the sitting president, but I'm not sure he is right. The McCain campaign, in fact, did a good job of warning of the possibility that it would be attacked—and thereby helping to prevent some assaults, and blunt the force of others. McCain learned the lesson of 2000.
As the GOP campaign moves to Florida and its primary on Jan. 29, McCain has a chance to build the kind of momentum he will need to carry him through to Tsunami Tuesday on Feb. 5. He needs to raise lots of cash fast—and this victory will help him do so.
McCain has gone from left-for-dead a few months ago to frontrunner-by-hard-work. He's peaking at the right time; the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to capture the GOP nomination every election cycle for the last 28 years.
Who else is in the finals? Huckabee will soldier on, but he may have crested as a phenomenon. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, having won the Ne-vada GOP caucuses by default—and having the deepest pockets in the race—is in it for the long haul, and can join Huckabee as the outsider candidate running against the insider McCain.
And then there is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Or is there? A few months ago, Rudy was leading the field in Florida by a substantial margin—20 points or more. Now McCain has edged past him in the consensus of the polls in the state.
Florida is so big and so influenced by national trends—and so expensive to ad-vertise and travel in—that McCain has a chance to turn the good news from South Carolina into a media wave that can help him. That is bad news for Rudy. He sim-ply hasn't been in the news.
Appropriately, McCain gave his victory speech in South Carolina at The Citadel, the military college that is the home of so many Pat Conroy novels. Remembering the bus tours and the bad news of eight years ago, McCain joked with the crowd. "It took us a while," he said, "but what's eight years among friends?"