CLINTON, S.C. -- Though he still calls himself the underdog in the Republican presidential race, Sen. John McCain arrived in this state yesterday after his landslide victory in the New Hampshire primary vowing that his "reformist crusade" would ultimately take the White House.
From a boisterous 3 a.m. victory party at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport, to the official launch of his South Carolina campaign in Clinton, to a rally in the state's capital, Columbia, McCain careered through the state. Confetti fell and music throbbed as hundreds of college students greeted him like a celebrity.
The state's Feb. 19 primary is just over two weeks away, and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas still leads in the polls here. But the Arizona senator's campaign insists that he can beat Bush.
As the race turned to this more conservative state, McCain showed no sign of altering the strategy of an insurgent, anti-establishment campaign that surged to a 19-point victory Tuesday in New Hampshire.
The McCain team hopes to attract independent and Democratic voters, who will be able to cast their ballots in the Republican primary here. (Democrats in South Carolina will not hold their presidential caucus until March.)
McCain said he would continue to woo moderates and young voters disaffected with the "iron triangle" of money, lobbyists and tainted legislation.
"Electability is all about getting the support of the center of the political spectrum," he said.
He asserted that his victory in New Hampshire had refuted the Bush campaign's argument that the Texas governor is the only Republican who could win the White House in November.
Some South Carolina voters appeared to agree.
"I just feel like this New Hampshire ordeal has proved a lot," said Betty Barnwell of Gramling, S.C. "It's given us a lot of confidence in him."
After Bush shrugged off his loss to McCain by pointing out that he -- unlike McCain -- is running a 50-state campaign, McCain shot back, "Now he's running in 49 states."
McCain aides insist they will defeat Bush here, then upend him again Feb. 22. in McCain's home state of Arizona. Another tough battleground will be in Michigan, whose primary also falls on Feb. 22 and whose popular Republican governor, John Engler, has promised a Bush triumph.
The Vietnam war hero is hoping that momentum from New Hampshire, plus a powerful appeal to South Carolina's huge contingent of servicemen and military veterans, can overcome Bush's advantages. McCain has won over two young Republican House members from this state, Reps. Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford, and has painted the campaign here as a battle between his young Turks and old-guard Republicans out of touch with new South Carolina priorities.
"This is going to be hand-to-hand combat down here," McCain predicted, "not so much between me and Bush but between these warring factions" in the party.
A Time-CNN poll released Monday, just before the New Hampshire voting, showed that McCain was trailing Bush by 20 points here, compared with 47 points in November.
Independent political analysts note that this is a state that has favored front-runners and institutional candidates, not mavericks and independents. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., the popular former governor, has organized Bush's campaign in all 46 South Carolina counties.
Even McCain's most ardent backers concede that they have their work cut out for them.
"He's a popular guy," Graham said of Campbell. "People will listen to him."
Bush viewed as a winner
Barbara Leonard, a state anti-abortion leader, said South Carolinians tend toward "a 'want to be on the winning team' attitude," and even now, they see Bush as the ultimate winner, not only in the race for the Republican nomination but ultimately in the presidential contest.
Changing that attitude "is a tall order," Leonard said, "but it's just like anything else. You have to fight for what you believe in."
Last night at the University of South Carolina, McCain made an overt appeal to the state's military pride, saying "there is no more patriotic state in America than the state of South Carolina. The bones of young citizens of South Carolina lie all over the world, in groves that were once killing fields."
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated the state's veteran population at 370,000, short of the 400,000 number the McCain camp cites, but still nearly 10 percent of the state's population. Add active-duty servicemen and military families, and McCain supporters say they have a force that can carry them to victory.
"If all the veterans banded together as a voting bloc, we could do anything we wanted," said Jerry Pothier, the South Carolina commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a fervent McCain supporter. But, he conceded, that has not been possible in the past.