COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AFP) — Conservative South Carolina's bare-knuckle politics heralded another wild turn in the Republican White House race Wednesday, with Mitt Romney basking in the first big win of his campaign.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama meanwhile looked to their next showdown in the Nevada caucuses Saturday, sparring for points about how each would lead the country out of its economic gloom.
Romney headed south after a crucial primary victory in his native state Michigan on Tuesday over rivals John McCain and Mike Huckabee, who had already decamped to South Carolina, which hosts its Republican contest also on Saturday.
"I'm delighted with the win. And I do intend to take the victory here on to Nevada and to South Carolina and Florida," Romney told MSNBC television.
Romney's victory further scrambled the Republican field, staved off extinction for his own campaign, and slowed the momentum of McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary last week.
But it was unclear how Romney's retooled message of economic renewal and railing at "broken" Washington would play in deeply conservative South Carolina.
The state is renowned for a brew of political dirty tricks, hawkish national security voters and an influential block of anti-abortion, pro-gun rights evangelical conservatives who may favor former Baptist minister Huckabee.
"On the issues that really matter to social conservatives, consistency on pro-life and pro-marriage ... Second Amendment issues, it's the whole package for people in South Carolina, they're very conservative," Huckabee told Fox News channel on Wednesday.
"That's why we feel like we're going to win here."
In the absence of a single candidate able to unite various fiefdoms of the Republican Party, the outcome of the national race remains impossible to predict.
South Carolina's no-holds-barred campaign tactics was already evident, after McCain's campaign intercepted a flyer by a shadowy group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, decrying his actions as a prisoner of war.
"The group claims that John McCain turned his back on his fellow POWs in order to save his own skin," said Orson Swindle, a McCain aide.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I was there," said Swindle, himself a former North Vietnamese POW.
The incident recalled notorious damaging allegations in the 2002 campaign in South Carolina that McCain had fathered an African-American baby out of wedlock.
The latest Zogby poll heralded a tough battle ahead in the state, with McCain ahead at 29 percent, Huckabee second with 23 percent and Romney in third with 13 percent.
Huckabee wants a win to bolster his fading momentum, after his victory in the Iowa caucuses on January 3.
Former screen star and senator Fred Thompson meanwhile is banking his gruff southern charm will allow him to make inroads here, though he lags badly in most polls.
Thompson on Wednesday condemned the media focus on polls and political attacks, which he said had cheapened the electoral process.
"I'm trying to discuss the issues. It's not this Mickey Mouse stuff that consumes the press -- who's jumping who," Thompson said on Fox News.
"I mean, this is about the future of the country."
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani meanwhile lay in wait for Florida's primary on January 29, part of a high-risk strategy prioritizing more liberal, populous states, many of which are holding their primaries on February 5.
On the Democrat side, Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards geared up for their next clash in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
The former first lady and Obama, who split the first two nominating contests, are also increasingly turning to economic issues.
On Wednesday Clinton took aim at Obama's remark in the debate that the government needs a lawyer and not a bureaucrat making sure schedules are being met.
"I was taken aback when Senator Obama said yesterday that he didn't intend to try to manage or run the government; that he was going to have advisors to do that." Clinton told NBC television.
"That is very reminiscent of what we have had for the last seven years. I intend to run the government."
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