COLUMBIA -- It was supposed to be a race too close to call, but before polls closed Saturday in South Carolina's crucial Republican primary, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was declared a decisive winner, based on exit polls.
And without a single vote yet counted, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was conceding South Carolina in North Charleston and was packing his bags for a 9 p.m. flight to Michigan, which has its GOP primary Tuesday. That state has 58 voting delegates to the Republican National Convention. South Carolina had just 37, although its voters have never failed to select the primary candidates who eventually became the party's presidential nominee.
There was jubilation in Columbia at the Sheraton, where the Bush campaign was holding a victory party. Supporters had just begun to arrive by 7 p.m. as polls were closing when NBC-TV announced Mr. Bush would take South Carolina by such a wide margin that real numbers wouldn't matter.
At 7:01 p.m., Mr. Bush said, "I'm excited, I'm honored, and I'm humbled by the outpouring of support in South Carolina. I believe voters here embraced my former leadership and my message that I will reform schools, strengthen the military and cut taxes to keep the economy going strong.
"I can't tell you how honored I am that South Carolina sent me on my way with a boost of energy."
At about the same time, Mr. McCain was issuing a statement prepared for his supporters, just beginning to gather at the convention center in North Charleston, battling traffic to a ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd concert next door. He delivered it at 8:10 p.m. with just 17 percent of the precincts counted and 51 percent of that total going to Mr. Bush and 43 to Mr. McCain.
The rest of the vote was split between former Ambassador Alan Keyes of Maryland and three contenders who had dropped out before the primary but after ballots were prepared.
"You don't have to win every skirmish to win the war," Mr. McCain told a disappointed, but still supportive crowd. "I congratulate Governor Bush on his victory here and wish him a happy celebration and a good night's rest. He's going to need it, my friends, for we have just begun to fight, and I cannot wait for the next round. I'm going to fight with every ounce of strength that I have, but I'm going to keep fighting clean. I'm going to keep fighting fair. And I'm going to keep fighting the battle of ideas."
By 10:30 p.m., with 85 percent of precincts reporting, Mr, Bush was pulling in 54 percent of the votes, compared with 41 percent for Mr. McCain and 5 percent for Mr. Keyes.
By the time Mr. Bush talked to supporters in a balloon-festooned ballroom, he had quit referring to his key opponent and started talking about November.
"A record turnout in South Carolina -- believed to be nearly twice the number who voted in the 1996 primary -- meant long lines at some polling places. And not all of them were open despite the party's assurance to a federal judge last week that it would find a way to staff every precinct. That came in the face of a last-minute challenge to the primary on the claim that precincts with heavily black voter participation were not going to be open.
State GOP Chairman Henry Dargan McMaster said 90 percent of the precincts were open, however.
Analysts said that black voters, in a primary open to all because South Carolina does not require registration by party, could go for Mr. Keyes or for Mr. McCain in an effort to keep Mr. Bush from winning.
But state Mr. McMaster said the unprecedented voting fever was good for the party and welcome.
The intensity, he said, was higher than in some general elections with multiple contests and higher stakes.
As votes were counted throughout the night, they supported what exit pollsters had found. And the totals appeared to be staggering. At 9:45 p.m., more than 345,000 votes had been counted. That meant the final vote count would be well over 400,000, nearing 500,000. The total who voted in 1996 was 276,000.
Some analysts laid the victory to the waning days of the campaign in South Carolina, with the eyes of the nation on it, when Mr. Bush began pointing to his record of reform in Texas, pulling from the themes that had helped Mr. McCain beat him in New Hampshire. There, veterans were solidly behind Mr. McCain, a Navy veteran, former fighter pilot, and prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years.
In South Carolina, Mr. Bush took advantage of forums where his key opponent was not present to expound his themes, sometimes using the same words that Mr. McCain had used in his rallies.
Another factor in South Carolina could have been the intense push by South Carolina Citizens for Life in conjunction with the National Right to Life Committee in the past month. Both said that Mr. McCain had waffled on abortion issues and encouraged voters to write him off. Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Richland, who worked with the McCain campaign, attributed his loss to the right-to-life initiative.
The NBC exit polls showed a third of the Bush vote was Christian right and anti-abortion.
And in South Carolina, the front-runners almost evenly spit veterans' votes, only 2 percent apart, while Mr. McCain tried hard to carry that constituency.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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