With his victory in South Carolina on Saturday, Senator John McCain of Arizona has accomplished what no other Republican presidential candidate has been able to do this year: he has captured two competitive contests. Not incidentally, this one was in the state that effectively sank his campaign in 2000.
In almost any other year, a victory like this — particularly in a state with a history of backing the eventual Republican nominee — would send the winner hurtling down the road toward the nomination.
But perhaps not this year, and perhaps not this candidate.
At the very least, Mr. McCain’s victory has helped him slow the rise of one of his main rivals, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who had looked to South Carolina, with its sizable base of evangelical Christians, as fertile ground for his appeal. After winning in Iowa, Mr. Huckabee has now lost three successive primaries.
Also on Saturday, Mitt Romney won the largely uncontested Nevada caucuses, giving him at least the claim of having won two contests in a row. On a more practical and potentially more meaningful level, he also captured more delegates on Saturday than Mr. McCain did.
Given that Mr. McCain’s candidacy was almost declared dead a few months ago, his comeback has been impressive. But so far he has benefited from a campaign calendar that could not have been better tailored to his political needs. His first two victories came in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where independents, who often seem more enthusiastic about Mr. McCain than members of his party do, are permitted to vote in the primaries.
The terrain from here is markedly different, starting Jan. 29 in Florida, where the Republican primary is open only to Republicans.
“He still has significant skepticism that he has to overcome in the Republican base,” said Gary L. Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is not endorsing anyone at this time. “The real test will be how well he can secure the Republican base as we head toward Super Tuesday.” Mr. Bauer added, “On balance, in most states, to get the nomination you’ve got to do very well among registered Republicans, and that is going to become increasingly important as other candidates drop out of the race.”
An exit poll in South Carolina offered evidence of the challenge Mr. McCain faces: 8 in 10 of the voters in the primary described themselves as Republicans, and just 3 in 10 of them voted for Mr. McCain. The finding suggests what Mr. McCain’s rivals were saying Saturday night: that he might not have won without the help of voters outside his party.
The outcome here came on a day when Democrats in Nevada awarded Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton her second consecutive victory over Senator Barack Obama. But the campaigns immediately began squabbling about the definition of a victory as Mr. Obama claimed that in the end, he would gain more delegates from the contest.
Mr. Obama, of Illinois, and Mrs. Clinton, of New York, have increasingly been viewing the coming contests as a long-running battle for delegates. No longer do Democrats see much chance of either candidate stringing together a few quick victories and consolidating the support of the party. The possibility of building steam that carries from one contest to the next seems much in question.
The Republicans are facing a similar situation, and view the race in much the same way. Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, fared poorly in South Carolina on Saturday, despite having made a major investment of time and resources in the state before leaving and effectively conceding it earlier in the week. But Mr. Romney won the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday and, as his aides and other Republicans were quick to point out, gained more delegates there than Mr. McCain did here.
“Romney may come out ahead today; he is going to be ahead in delegates,” said Sara Taylor, a former White House political director who has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
South Carolina may help narrow the Republican field somewhat. Fred D. Thompson’s back-in-the-pack finish leaves his candidacy in doubt. Should Mr. Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, leave the race, fewer candidates would be vying for the support of traditional social and economic conservatives.
But the Republican race remains in flux. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who came in nearly last here despite an early investment of time, has been campaigning heavily in Florida while everyone else has been here. He will face his first head-to-head test there and can ill afford a defeat.
The critical question for Mr. McCain now is whether a candidate who has alienated so many Republicans and conservatives over the years can put together the kind of coalition needed to win his party’s nomination. His main opening comes from the nature of the competition; all the other candidates are flawed in one way or another in the eyes of the Republican base. “McCain is helped because it is still a crowded field that is not resolved, and he is helped because independents have been able to vote,” said Alex Castellanos, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney.
“As we go forward, the race may winnow itself, and there are going to be more closed primaries — and neither of those are good for him,” he said.
Mr. McCain’s support for the war in Iraq, a potential liability for so long, became a bragging point for him — especially in South Carolina, with its large population of people with ties to the military — amid evidence that the increase in troop strength had added stability in Iraq. But by every indication, the focus of the campaign is shifting from the war and national security to the economy, an issue that is not one of Mr. McCain’s strengths. While his rivals have been proposing a variety of short-term tax breaks to address the economic slowdown, Mr. McCain has emphasized cutting federal spending, an approach at odds with accepted thinking about how best to give the economy an immediate lift.
Even as the votes were being cast in South Carolina, Mr. Giuliani was in Florida offering a taste of how he was going to go after Mr. McCain there, reminding voters that Mr. McCain had voted against President Bush’s tax cut plan “not once, but twice.”
Independent voters are a powerful force in American politics, and Mr. McCain’s clear appeal to them goes to the heart of what has been one of the arguments of his supporters: that he may be the strongest candidate his party can put up against Mrs. Clinton this year. But their voice is going to be diminished as Mr. McCain and the rest of the field heads into the crush of contests over the next two weeks.
Florida is his first barrier. And other delegate-rich states — including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware and New York, which all vote Feb. 5 — do not permit independents to vote.
Mr. McCain is also likely to find himself a victim of a campaign calendar that has confronted all these candidates with a wave of costly primaries and caucuses so soon after the early-voting states. In previous election cycles, Mr. McCain might have been able to ride these victories to raise money and bring back contributors who had been scared off by his earlier problems.
There is little time for that now. And Mr. Romney is wealthy and has shown little reluctance to write a check to finance his own campaign.
Still, the bragging rights of having won two competitive Republican contests — and having overcome Mr. Huckabee here — are no small thing in this muddled and inconclusive year. There are almost surely going to be fewer candidates in the Republican field by the end of the week, and Mr. McCain is going to suddenly receive the kind of news media attention that befits a genuine front-runner — at precisely the moment he needs it.