Sen. John McCain narrowly beat out former Gov. Mike Huckabee in the Republican South Carolina primary tonight, reversing his 2000 defeat to George W. Bush in the state and solidifying himself as a candidate to be reckoned with leading up to the multistate Super Tuesday votes.
The Arizona senator battled back from the brink of political disaster this summer when his campaign was thought to be almost over after lackluster fundraising results and staffing shakeups.
"Thank you South Carolina for bringing us across the finish line first in the first-in-the-South primary," McCain said in a victory speech tonight to a crowd of supporters yelling "Mac is back!"
"It took us a while, but what's eight years among friends," McCain said smiling broadly. "It just gave us the opportunity to spend more time in this beautiful state."
Support from the state's military veterans, who account for 25 percent of the electorate in the Republican contest, and support from independents and moderates helped McCain win, according to exit polls. A big turnout by conservatives and evangelicals benefitted Huckabee.
With almost all of the precincts reporting, McCain has garnered 33 percent support, Huckabee, 30 percent, with Thompson at 16 percent and Romney at 15 percent.
Huckabee said he called McCain to congratulate him.
"I want to thank him for running a good and decent and civil campaign," Huckabee said tonight in his concession speech to cheering supporters.
"The path to the White House is not ending here tonight," he said, "We're resetting the clock ... tomorrow, after a little bit of sleep, we wake up to fight the battle yet again."
Historically the Palmetto State's GOP primary has been a kingmaker — no Republican presidential candidate has captured the White House without first winning the South Carolina primary since former President Reagan won the state's primary in 1980.
But with multiple candidates winning multiple early contests, and the GOP field still in flux, this may be the year the state's kingmaker status falls on its sword.
Thompson, who has yet to win any presidential contest, made the biggest effort of his campaign in the state, highlighting his Southern roots and conservative ideology.
A Thompson campaign spokesman told ABC News' Christine Byun Saturday night the campaign's status is "fluid" and it will evaluate its situation based on final results.
In a speech tonight before the final results were known, the former Tennessee senator thanked his supporters and his family, and suggested his candidacy had pushed the Republican Party to evaluate itself.
"Because of your efforts and because of our working together our party is looking in the mirror," Thompson told supporters in Columbia, S.C.
"My friends we will always be bound by a close bond. … It's never been about me, it's never been about you, it's about our country," Thompson told the crowd, saying "Stay Strong!" as he exited the stage.
Long-shot Republican presidential candidate California Rep. Duncan Hunter dropped out of the race not long after the polls closed in South Carolina, after a disappointing finish in the Nevada caucuses.
At a McCain rally in South Carolina, small cheers went up whenever McCain's name appeared above Huckabee's on the television, reports ABC News' Bret Hovell.