This is a rush transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," January 19, 2008.
PAUL GIGOT, HOST: Welcome to this special edition of the "Journal Editorial Report." We are live with results from the South Carolina GOP primary where tonight John McCain pulled off a big win.
Also today, the Nevada caucuses where Hillary Clinton beat back a tough challenge from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cruised to an easy win over his rivals in the Republican field.
But first, to the Palmetto State, where tonight veterans and self- described moderate voters helped propel John McCain to victory over his chief rival there, Mike Huckabee.
For more on that, I am joined by Republican pollster Whit Ayers.
Whit Ayers, thanks for being here.
WHIT AYERS, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Hey, Paul. How are you?
GIGOT: Great, thanks. Big win tonight for John McCain. Eight years ago it didn't go so well for him. What did he do differently tonight that gave him the victory that didn't happen eight years ago?
AYERS: It has to be a sweet win tonight after the bitter loss eight years ago. Eight years ago he actually got 42 percent of the vote, 10 percent more than he got tonight. The big thing different today is there were four major candidates rather than two major candidates like there were eight years ago and he did just well enough to get past Mike Huckabee.
GIGOT: Last time, I recall, he didn't do as well with Republican voters and conservatives. But this time, he did seem to do — at least get close enough with conservatives, able to compete for their votes with Mike Huckabee on the rest of the field. What part of McCain's message do you think worked this time in particular?
AYERS: I think the national security message. His strength on military affairs. There are so many veterans from South Carolina. It is a patriotic state. Very concerned about the war on terror. And I think having a primary, post-9/11, with a hero, an American military hero really worked to his advantage tonight.
GIGOT: One thing that struck me in the exit polls was that about one out of four Republicans said immigration was the most important issue, yet McCain only lost by three or four points, I think, to Huckabee among voters who said that was their most important issue. This, after a year in which everybody was saying John McCain was going to lose the nomination on the immigration issue. Are we seeing that maybe immigration isn't the really decisive voting issue some people think it is?
AYERS: There is a small proportion, about a quarter of the Republican primary electorate that is relay fired up about immigration. There are a lot of others who are concerned. But they realize the issue is more complex than sometimes it is presented. And I think it is fascinating that McCain did as well among those people who care about immigration as he did today.
GIGOT: Other issues liking the economy or national security, the war on terror or Iraq are more decisive voting issues than immigration?
AYERS: For some voters, they are.
GIGOT: We have heard a lot this campaign season that this GOP coalition, the cultural conservatives the free Market conservatives the national security conservatives are splitting apart. That there is no possibility, that they are social conservatives fob Huckabee some free marketeers for Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney, is it as fractious as all that? Is this coalition splitting apart?
AYERS: I don't think it is splitting a party. You have candidates that appeal to parts of it. You saw that in South Carolina today. South Carolina has a number of cultures. To borrow a line from John Berendts' "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," in Greenville, they ask you where do you go to church. In Columbia, they ask you what do you do for a living. In Charleston, they ask you what will you have to drink.
Huckabee did really well with the church crowd. He won two to one among people who go to church more than once a week. The what-do-you-do- for-a-living crowd split among major candidates. The what-will-you-have- to-drink crowd was waiting for Giuliani, but he never showed up so they voted for McCain.
GIGOT: Why has it taken so long though for the GOP voters to coalesce around one candidate? It seems it is taking longer this time than it has in the past. Is it a failure of the candidates to have the coalescing message? Or is this the voters are in a show me state of mind?
AYERS: I think it is more, Paul, the fact that you have different candidates all of whom have different strengths. Mike Huckabee is so strong on the values message. And Mitt Romney is so strong on the business and economy message and John McCain is so strong on the national security military affairs message. They are wonderful when they are talking about their specialties. They not only understand the words but they understand the music as well. And so I think you have candidates who have different strengths that appear to parts of the coalition. Ultimately, the coalition will come together. But we have got awhile to go before that will happen.