JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Republican presidential race, it appears, has taken on the qualities of a kaleidoscope.
Every primary or caucus, the winner looks inside and sees something else, underscoring the volatile nature of a 2008 nominating contest that is still moving toward clarity.
Leading contenders are emerging, hangers-on are dropping away and in less than 10 days, the viability of Rudy Giuliani’s unconventional political strategy will be judged in plain view.
The 57 delegates at stake in Florida, the virtual dead heat at the start of the campaign’s final act and the momentum the winner could gain heading into the 20-plus contests being held Feb. 5 have the potential to turn Florida’s Jan. 29 primary into the make-or-break contest of the race.
John McCain glided in, following up his win in the New Hampshire primary with another big-ticket victory Saturday in the South Carolina primary. To the Arizona senator, it was sweet justice, for it was South Carolina where George W. Bush pummeled him into submission in 2000 after McCain had similarly won the New Hampshire primary.
“It took us awhile, but what’s eight years among friends?” McCain joked at his victory party.
McCain examined his victory with historical perspective.
“I am aware that for the last 28 years, the winner of the South Carolina primary has been the nominee of our party and president of the United States,” McCain declared. “We have a ways to go, my friends, and there’s some tough contests ahead, and starting tomorrow in the state of Florida, where we’re going to win. But, my friends, we are well on our way tonight. And I feel very good about our chances.”
Rival Mike Huckabee saw hope in the ashes of defeat.
While losing to McCain, the former preacher and Arkansas governor took his second-place finish as a sign of redemption after his campaign-opening victory in the Iowa caucuses — a win propelled by the support of evangelicals — was followed by a string of losses.
“We didn’t lose tonight, the game ended a little early for us,” Huckabee told supporters in Columbia, S.C. “We’re resetting the clock. We’re resetting all of the gauges.”
Exit surveys of South Carolina voters showed that conservatives who were white evangelical or born-again Christians went 2-to-1 for Huckabee over McCain, 46 percent to 23 percent. But among conservatives who were not evangelicals, McCain had 32 percent and Romney 23 percent, with Fred Thompson at 21 percent and Huckabee 18 percent.
McCain's base looks broader among the party’s bedrock voters, as well as vital independents.
Romney, meanwhile, peered into the looking glass and saw only Nevada.
While the former Massachusetts governor with the self-described 50-state campaign competed heartily in South Carolina, he chose to ignore the skunking he took — fourth place — and instead focused on the win he scored in Nevada's caucuses on Saturday.
“It’s a big presidential sweepstakes event, as you know, and we won that one handily,” Romney said of Nevada during a speech that had the trappings of a victory party.
His possible blind spot? He has been beaten heartily in Iowa and South Carolina, states where evangelicals turned out, yet he won in Nevada, where half his vote came from his fellow Mormons.
The results indicated a potential religious divide as he attempts to become the first Mormon to become president.
The series of early losses was enough to convince Rep. Duncan Hunter of California to quit the race Saturday. Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, stands on the brink of dropping out.
Giuliani, however, has refused to even look for meaning in the drubbing he has taken from Iowa through New Hampshire to Nevada and South Carolina.
He has consistently placed behind Ron Paul, a long-shot candidate, and has fewer delegates than the Texas congressman.
Instead, Giuliani has focused on Florida, believing that if he can score his first win there, the past will be forgotten, he will be launched toward a series of victories on Feb. 5 and the nomination will be his.
“We’re waiting for you,” Giuliani said Saturday. “We’re waiting for you with a campaign we’ve been working on for, I think, almost a year.”
Romney was already in the state, with McCain coming Sunday and Huckabee later in the week.
Each had the intent of throwing mud in Giuliani’s eye and, in the process, clarifying their own standing atop to GOP field.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Glen Johnson has reported on local, state and national politics since 1985. He helps cover the Republican presidential race for The Associated Press.