NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- John McCain might have lost the skirmish that was the South Carolina presidential primary Saturday, but the Arizona senator remains confident that he will win the war for the Republican nomination.
Conceding to Texas Gov. George W. Bush just an hour after the polls closed statewide at 7 p.m., Mr. McCain told supporters that "we have just begin to fight."
"Well, my friends, you don't have to win every skirmish to win a war or a crusade, and although we fell a little short tonight our crusade will grow strong," Mr. McCain said during a post-primary rally at the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston.
The rally was all glitz and glamour, despite the day's loss. Entering the convention center to the music of Star Wars and to machine smoke, the senator, like the movie's Luke Skywalker, vowed to defeat his stronger opponent.
Taking a shot at Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain vowed to continue a positive campaign in the next primaries in Michigan and Arizona, both Tuesday.
"I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land," Mr. McCain said, pausing as supporters began chanting his name. "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."
He said he would offer Americans a "clear choice" between himself and Mr. Bush, claiming to be a reformer, a uniter and a fighter for his country.
"I don't just say it, I live it," he said.
Mr. McCain's campaign spokesmen shared their chief's confidence.
"Bush had to win or he was history," said McCain spokesman Dan McLagan. "So the campaign won't end now; it will end a couple primaries down the road."
And it will ultimately end, he promised, with a McCain victory.
Despite the loss, Mr. McCain still has the momentum going into the next round of primaries, said staunch McCain supporter U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston.
Mr. McCain handily won the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1, and early results Saturday showed that he managed to keep the race close in South Carolina, Mr. Sanford said. Now Mr. McCain must split his time between Michigan and his home state of Arizona.
"That's not a bad spot to be in," Mr. Sanford said. Nor does he believe Mr. McCain's underdog status is a bad thing.
"Bush is still fighting for his life. We're David, picking up a few rocks and chucking them at him," he said, likening Mr. McCain's continuing uphill campaign to the biblical battle between David and Goliath.
Mr. McCain, Mr. Sanford and Mr. McLagan charged that Mr. Bush's negative campaign will hurt the governor in coming primaries.
"The fact is that George Bush ran an unprecedented negative campaign," Mr. McLagan said. "I'm happy with (Mr. McCain's) campaign. Senator McCain ran an honorable, positive campaign.
"And this is a state that is very much a Bush fire wall; it's a strong Bush state.
"Now we are off to Michigan where we're ahead in the polls and then to Arizona where we're strongly ahead in the polls."
Another advantage the hard-fought South Carolina campaign gained for the McCain team, Mr. McLagan said, is the $50 million Mr. Bush has had to spend on his campaign to date. Mr. McCain has spent about $25 million, Mr. McLagan said, leaving both with roughly the same amount of money in their campaign coffers.
After having outspent Mr. McCain in South Carolina, "(Mr. Bush) can't do this to us again," Mr. McLagan said.
Mr. McCain spoke to supporters for a few minutes and then boarded a plane for Lansing, Mich., where he had an after-midnight rally.