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McCain riding high toward S.C. hurdle

The ice sculpture stood like a battle monument outside the hotel Wednesday long after the victor had headed south.

McCain 2000.

Whether it commemorated John McCain's first upset win in a Republican presidential primary or his last won't become clear until after Valentine's Day.

The Arizona senator met cheering crowds in South Carolina on the day after his remarkable New Hampshire win over Texas Gov. George W. Bush. It was not that McCain won but how he won that has reshaped the race.

Even McCain's most fervent supporters did not predict winning 49 percent of the vote to Bush's 30 percent. It was a landslide worthy of a monument made from something more permanent than ice.

But all of this week's giddiness about McCain's underdog battle could melt away in the South Carolina primary Feb. 19.

Unlike New Hampshire, South Carolina is not fond of insurgents.

South Carolina is the famous fire wall for the Republican establishment. It has protected everyone from Bob Dole to Bush's father from upstarts. It is not keen on reformers like McCain who want to end tax breaks for the wealthy.

"Heck, that's the whole point," Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor, said Wednesday. "That's why a bunch of those people are Republicans in the first place."

McCain has assets. He has momentum. He can think on his feet. He has sold his image as a straight-talking war hero who will tell voters the truth.

"He looked like a leader," Black said. "He looked like someone you could imagine talking to about any problem, and you would get a response."

What McCain does not have in South Carolina is time.

He has 16 days from today to make up 20 points in the polls. He cannot spend a year holding 114 town meetings as he did in New Hampshire.

McCain says he will hold as many town meetings as he can, and some of them may be televised to other parts of the state. But it won't be easy.

"There's no way candidates can press the flesh the way they can in New Hampshire," said William Moore, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

As in most states, Bush has the Republican establishment firmly in his camp. It includes former Govs. Carroll Campbell and David Beasley, whose network of former aides and supporters know how to turn out voters.

McCain has two members of Congress from a younger generation, Mark Sanford and Lindsey Graham. But Black and Moore said they have not demonstrated the statewide political influence that Bush's supporters have.

The Arizona senator also is counting on 400,000 military veterans in South Carolina, the highest concentration of ex-soldiers anywhere in the country. McCain has talked about the disgrace of 12,000 military families on food stamps so often that Bush has stolen the line. His charge that the Clinton administration has used soldiers as social workers around the world also will sell.

But the clout of veterans in South Carolina's GOP primary is questionable. Moore said many of them are Democrats, African-Americans and blue-collar workers. While all voters will be able to cast ballots in the primary, he said many vets aren't likely to show up for a Republican contest.

"The veterans' vote is overemphasized in South Carolina," Moore said.

That leaves Republicans.

McCain has some support among those voters in the low country to the south, Moore and Black said. Those voters tend to be small businessmen more interested in the economy than in social issues.

Bush is stronger among the social conservatives in the northern part of the state. Moore said Christian conservatives could make up to one-third of the voters in the Republican primary.

Although McCain opposes abortion rights, he is under attack from abortion opponents. They dislike his comments that the extremes on both sides of the issue should find common ground. They also contend his efforts to reform campaign financing would hurt independent groups.

Beyond South Carolina, McCain also is behind Bush in money and organization. He had less than $2-million in the bank at the end of 1999. McCain did have one bright spot Wednesday. By lunchtime his campaign had raised more than half a million dollars on the Internet alone in the past 24 hours.

While campaign officials say they are moving staffers and resources to states such as California and Michigan, there is no national organization to wage multiple battles simultaneously with the Bush machine.

That's too far in the future for McCain supporters to worry about after the victory in New Hampshire.

"It makes South Carolina more important," said Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan, who heads McCain's supporters there. "He could surprise people in South Carolina."

Just as he surprised everyone Tuesday.

In the first week of January, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said McCain had to win three out of the first four primaries to be viable when more than a dozen states vote March 7: New Hampshire; South Carolina on Feb. 19; and Michigan and his home state of Arizona on Feb. 22.

In the first week of February, McCain has it down to two out of three.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.