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 Status 'Fluid'
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.
'Eight Years for This Night'
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.
The first speaker to take the stage to address McCain supporters said, "We've been waiting eight years for this night."
McCain's desire to win the Palmetto State was as personal as it was political. The Navy veteran's presidential aspirations were cut short soon after a bitter defeat in the 2000 GOP South Carolina primary, where outside groups made wild accusations about McCain's integrity and military record.
Political observers say McCain's perseverance in the state paid off with voters.
"In South Carolina there is a kind of tradition to run first and lose gracefully to show enough humility to assume the metals of office while winning on the second try," said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.
This time around, McCain focused on appealing to the sizable population of military veterans in the state. One in four South Carolina GOP voters are veterans, according to exit polls, about the same as in past years. They were about 10 points in McCain's favor, ABC News' Gary Langer reports.
McCain also focused on wooing conservatives by highlighting his opposition to abortion, the dangers of Internet child porn and his pledge to nominate "strict constructionist" judges.
Preliminary exit poll results indicate that nearly seven in 10 Republican voters in the state are identifying themselves as conservatives, which is more than in the 2000 primary there, as well as more than in either Michigan or New Hampshire this year.
Meanwhile McCain and Huckabee's team complained this afternoon about voting problems in Horry County, near Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"We've heard reports of people literally casting ballots on scraps of paper," McCain spokeswoman B.J. Boling told ABC News' Ron Claiborne.
South Carolina election commission officials confirmed that a number of voting machines in a number of precincts in Horry County had difficulty this morning from human error in preparing the voting machines for the election, reports ABC News' Tahman Bradley.
Officials say "there's nothing to indicate that the votes cast in Horry County have been compromised" because voters have been directed to cast a paper ballot in places where electronic machines have failed, reports ABC News' Teddy Davis.
Huckabee's S.C. state co-chair Mike Campbell said the campaign has a team of lawyers in Myrtle Beach to understand what happened, and said it was "ludicrous" the polling places didn't have a sufficient contingency.
Turnout among eligible voters this year was lower than in 2000 -- 14 percent this year to 20 percent eight years ago.
Many candidates feared inclement weather, rain, snow and sleet in some parts of the state would lead some voters to stay home.
Huckabee greeted voters at a polling place in Columbia, S.C., early this morning, thanking supporters who had braved the rain to vote.
The former Arkansas governor urged Christian evangelicals to turn out and vote, despite the rain, sleet and snow.
"I just hope that our voters are so committed that it doesn't affect the fact that they're going to go out and vote, because they believe this is a mission," he said, reported the AP.
The former Southern Baptist minister appealed to many Christian evangelicals in the state — the same group that propelled him to victory in the Iowa caucuses.
"He's the candidate whose core values most closely resemble mine," said Tony Beam, a Christian evangelical and host of a morning Christian talk radio program in Columbia, S.C. who urged his listeners to vote for Huckabee.
"I want somebody who when a crisis arises or when they have to make a decision, that they're going to have to go to their core values to guide them."
Nearly six in 10 in South Carolina are evangelical Christians, according to preliminary exit poll results. About seven in 10 GOP voters said abortion should be generally illegal; more than said so either in Michigan, or in markedly less-conservative New Hampshire.
Romney's Nevada Win
Romney left the state two days earlier to focus his campaigning in Nevada, in an effort to lower expectations in South Carolina and concentrate instead on the state with more delegates.
Nevada has 34 delegates to South Carolina's 24 delegates, according to ABC News' delegate count.
That gamble appears to have paid off, with Romney winning the GOP Nevada caucuses today.
Romney significantly outspent his rivals in overall television advertising in South Carolina. His ads aired 5,257 times to Huckabee's 2,049 and McCain's 1,471, between February 2007 and Tuesday in the Charleston, Columbia, Greenville-Spartanburg and Myrtle Beach-Florence TV markets, according to a report by Nielsen.
But once again, his spending ability did not result in victory, battling Thompson for third place in the state.
Giuliani Takes on McCain
Giuliani, never thought to be a factor in the state, spent the weekend in Florida, sticking with his strategy of concentrating on the delegate-rich state that votes Jan. 29 — he hopes a win there will propel him through the Super Tuesday votes Feb. 5.
In what is perhaps a signal of McCain's strength, Giuliani did something today that he'd shied away from this campaign, reports ABC News' Jan Simmonds.
Giuliani has said that if he weren't running he would likely be backing McCain, but today Giuliani blasted McCain and Romney, accusing them of not supporting the Bush tax cuts.
"John McCain voted with the Democrats against the tax cuts twice," Giuliani told a Florida retirement community today.
Hoping to attract media coverage on voting day in South Carolina, even while running low in the polls, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul's campaign's announced the Ron Paul Blimp would be flying over Columbia, carrying Paul's son, Rand Paul, 45, and two of the candidates grandchildren.
But in the end it was McCain who won the South Carolina primary, boosting expectation for his candidacy going into political contests in Florida and the Super Tuesday states.
ABC News' Gary Langer, Nicole Gallagher, Karen Travers, Teddy Davis, Tahman Bradley, Ron Claiborne, Christine Byun, Matt Stuart, Jan Simmonds, Bret Hovell, Kevin Chupka and Z. Byron Wolf contributed reporting.