CHARLESTON, S.C. John McCain's first presidential bid cratered in South Carolina after a nasty campaign and never recovered.
Back for a second shot, it's not so much vengeance he seeks, but victory.
"Eight years is a long, long time in politics," the Arizona senator said Wednesday, reveling in another New Hampshire triumph while arguing why he could succeed in South Carolina where he once failed.
Times have changed, he says, and so has the state itself. It's also a different nomination fight than it was back then wide-open, fractured and lacking a front-runner with the weight of the establishment behind him.
At least one thing, however, hasn't changed and that could spell trouble for McCain.
Christian evangelicals, many of whom have never warmed to the senator, still hold much sway in the ultraconservative Upstate region; their favored candidate Baptist preacher turned Arkansas politician Mike Huckabee is angling for a win. Immigration also could pose a problem for McCain, who backs providing millions of illegal immigrants an eventual path to citizenship.
Republicans in this state hold their primary Jan. 19; Michigan goes before it, on Tuesday.
In 2000, McCain cruised into South Carolina fresh from a stunning New Hampshire win over establishment favorite George W. Bush only to go down in bitter defeat in the first-in-the-South primary. On TV, Bush allies vastly outspent the GOP underdog. Underground, McCain was assailed in negative telephone calls and a whisper campaign that spread rumors about him and his family.
This year, his backers have set up what they're calling a "truth squad" to counter negative campaigning in a state known for brass-knuckles politics. Said McCain: "I'm not sure the people of South Carolina would stand for it again."
Next week, he will head into the thick of the South Carolina race having racked up at least one, maybe two wins; his aides see Huckabee as McCain's greatest threat now that Mitt Romney is weakened from two major losses and has pulled his advertising in South Carolina to focus more on must-win Michigan.
Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, is struggling to mount a comeback in South Carolina, while Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, isn't much of a factor.
Conversely, Huckabee and McCain have momentum from respective wins in hotly contested Iowa and New Hampshire. Huckabee holds wide appeal with Christian evangelicals; McCain attracts voters from across the political spectrum.
Christian evangelicals have a tense relationship with McCain. He disparaged their leaders in 2000, labeling some "agents of intolerance." Since then, he has sought to repair relations; for instance, speaking at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia in 2006.
"There is a lot less negativity about him in the conservative religious community than in 2000," said James Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
McCain's aides don't pretend they can lock up the Christian evangelical vote. Rather, they are focused on appealing to voters across all parts of the party.
In that vein, McCain sees two factors working in his favor.
The race is the first contested GOP primary since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The world has changed. America has changed," McCain said. "In 2000, we were not in two wars and facing the transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism."
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, argues that people in a state with a long military tradition, several bases and a large number of veterans could seek commander in chief qualities primarily in a candidate. He said of his decades of experience on military matters, "I certainly think it's helpful with a lot of South Carolinians."
At the same time, McCain hopes to benefit from a population spurt; South Carolina's numbers rose by nearly 10 percent since the decade began, with many people settling along the coastal region that McCain won in 2000. These transplants in retirement communities and resort towns tend to be more moderate on social issues. The newcomers have made the state even more Republican than it already was, but not necessarily more conservative, and that could benefit McCain.
Immigration remains a major issue and many Republicans remain fired up over McCain's position. But the passions that the issue ignited have calmed some, and McCain has tempered his zeal for comprehensive reform with a "secure the borders first" pitch.
Through political turmoil last year, McCain backers argue that his biggest problem has been that South Carolina Republicans began to doubt that he could be elected.
"After New Hampshire, that's over," said Lindsey Graham, the senior South Carolina senator and close McCain confidant. "We're a viable campaign, and that's all we needed to prove to people."
Associated Press writers Libby Quaid and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington and AP Religion Writer Eric Gorski contributed to this report.