Front runners, for now


McCain and Hillary sweep the votes, but the race is far from over.

THERE are clear front runners in the race to the White House – for now at least.

Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain have accomplished what no other contenders have been able to do thus far: capture two competitive nominating contests.

Mrs Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, won the vote over her closest rival Barack Obama in the Nevada Democratic caucuses on Saturday. And Arizona senator McCain narrowly defeated Mr Mike Huckabee in his party primary in South Carolina.

While the wins will lend momentum to their campaigns, neither front runner holds an unassailable advantage in a muddied race that leaves the Republican and Democratic nominations still up in the air with more heated battles ahead in other states.

Of the two, the Republican race is in greater flux.

Mr McCain put to rest bitter memories of his 2000 defeat in South Carolina at the hands of then Texas governor George W. Bush. His victory over Mr Huckabee by a margin of 33 to 30 per cent avenged that loss, which spelt the end of his presidential campaign then.

“It took us a while, but what’s eight years among friends?” he told supporters in his victory speech.

South Carolina Republicans have been kingmakers in party politics, with the Republican winner in the state going on to capture the party’s nomination every year since 1980.

But it is not going to be a cakewalk for Mr McCain, 71, whose campaign appeared dead in the water just a few months ago when he was low on cash and sinking in the polls.

The Vietnam War veteran managed – as in New Hampshire – to garner most of his votes from independents. They seem to favour him more than Republicans.

An exit poll in South Carolina suggested the problems he could face in the weeks ahead: eight in 10 of the voters described themselves as Republicans, and only three in 10 voted for him. Clearly, he would not have won without the support of unaffiliated voters.

Doubts in the Republican base over Mr McCain’s candidacy could pose a huge challenge to his presidential bid. In several other states, including Florida, which will be contested on Jan 29, the Republican primary is open only to party members.

It gives rivals like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – who won the less significant Nevada caucus on Saturday – and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani a decisive advantage unless Mr McCain can woo the Republican base.

In the run-up to Super Tuesday on Feb 5, when 22 states contest their primaries, the party’s nomination looks likely to be narrowed down to these three candidates.

Saturday’s results created big questions for Mr Huckabee and Mr Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who needed a strong showing in South Carolina to go on.

More than half the voters in South Carolina are religious conservatives, but that was not enough to give a win to Mr Huckabee, a Baptist preacher who stormed into the contest with a win in Iowa fuelled by evangelical support.

“The path to the White House is not ending here tonight,” he told supporters.

“We’ve got a lot of miles ahead of us.”

It is not going to be easy. Since his victory in Iowa, Mr Huckabee has lost three successive primaries. Mr Thompson’s record is worse. He had crushing defeats in all.

For the Democratic Party, Mrs Clinton’s links to the Latino community and female voters helped her beat Mr Obama in Nevada.

The two had split the first two Democratic contests.

“I guess this is how the West was won,” Mrs Clinton said in Las Vegas, telling reporters later: “This is one step on a long journey throughout the country.”

The support of the two key voting blocs in Nevada and her continued strong showing among union and blue-collar workers give her an edge as the race heads towards Super Tuesday. Several states in that near-national primary have similar demographics as Nevada – and significantly, voting is open only to Democrats.

She continues to draw on the Democratic Party base, unlike Mr Obama who, like Mr McCain, has been tapping on a larger number of independent voters.

But the race between the two is still open as they slug it out for the black vote. Polling showed that more than 80 per cent of the black caucus-goers in Nevada backed Mr Obama.

If he matches this in South Carolina on Saturday, he could win that primary. And some of the largest Feb 5 states, including his home state of Illinois, Mrs Clinton’s New York base and neighbouring New Jersey, have large African-American voting populations.

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