By David S. Broder
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The New Hampshire verdicts were reinforced Saturday in Nevada and South Carolina, bringing a degree of clarity to both parties' nomination fights.
Hillary Clinton's victory in the Nevada caucuses and John McCain's win in the South Carolina primary were close enough to keep the competition going on both sides. But the winners gained significant advantages for the coming rounds.
Mitt Romney remains a serious challenger for the Republican nomination, with a win in Nevada Saturday on top of earlier victories in Michigan and Wyoming, and second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Barack Obama, winless since Iowa, nonetheless continued to draw the kind of independent support that could fuel a comeback for him, starting next Saturday in South Carolina.
Mike Huckabee, the upset winner among Iowa Republicans, was damaged by his inability to roll up comparable margins among South Carolina evangelicals.
But he remains a factor in the four-way contest on Jan. 29 in Florida, where McCain will test his momentum against Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who has rested all his hopes on the Sunshine State.
Meantime, Saturday put a severe dent in two other contenders, Democrat John Edwards and Republican Fred Thompson. With third place finishes for the two former senators, their ability to remain viable candidates appeared to be in serious doubt.
For McCain, winning South Carolina reversed the most bitter of defeats in his 2000 challenge to George W. Bush -- another year where he won New Hampshire's independents.
The Arizona senator rallied the kind of establishment support here this time that went to Bush eight years ago and secured a victory that should enable him to raise money for the coming contests against the well-funded Romney.
But McCain still faces a challenge in states, such as Florida and California, where only registered Republicans -- and not independents -- can vote in the GOP primary.
On the Democratic side, in Nevada, as in New Hampshire, Clinton demonstrated powerful appeal to women voters, who dominated the turnout in both states. And she trounced Obama among Hispanics, despite his endorsement by the Culinary Workers' Union that represents many of them employed in the casino industry.
In coming, delegate-rich states, such as California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey, those two constituencies could once again be critical. Obama's appeal to African-Americans and younger voters in both races makes him competitive, but may not be enough to push him past Clinton.
In the next contest, in South Carolina, Clinton also benefits from the weakness being shown by the third Democrat, former senator John Edwards. He has looked more and more beleaguered in each state since he edged Clinton and took second place behind Obama in Iowa.
In 2004, Edwards was able to win his native state of South Carolina, thanks primarily to his support from white voters, and he has spent more days campaigning in the state this cycle than any of his rivals. But now, looking like a loser in the national competition, he may divert fewer white votes from Clinton than the Obama campaign had hoped.
Meantime, the Clinton campaign is planning to have Bill Clinton working black audiences across South Carolina, pitting his historical ties to African-American voters against Obama's strength.
Some veteran Democrats here see a potential pattern of racial voting that could yield a narrow Clinton victory.