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 with a probable 3-1 victory, 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 has 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 near 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."
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 with 17 percent of the precincts counted and 51 percent of the 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."
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.
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 GOP Party Chairman Henry Dargan McMaster said the unprecedented voting fever was good for the party and was welcome.
The intensity, he said, was higher than some general elections with multiple contests and higher stakes.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.