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Republicans wrestle over conservative mantle in SC as Democratic race heats up in the west

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    CHARLESTON, S.C. — Republican presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson tussled Wednesday over who’s the true conservative while the Democratic contest in Nevada indicated the truce called over racially sensitive matters does not extend to other points of dispute.
    Thompson, in a pitched competition with Huckabee for the evangelical vote in South Carolina’s primary Saturday, said he’s the Republican with consistent social conservative credentials. Of Huckabee’s record as former Arkansas governor’s record, he said, ‘‘liberal would be the word I would apply to it.’’ And he pointed to Mitt Romney’s policy conversions to the right in saying of himself, ‘‘Where I stand doesn’t depend on where I’m standing.’’
    Huckabee said it’s ‘‘ludicrous’’ to think he’s liberal and pointed out he favors a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and Thompson doesn’t.
    ‘‘The writers strike needs to end soon,’’ Huckabee said with mock concern about rhetoric coming from Thompson, an actor and former Tennessee senator. ‘‘He’s got to come up with some good lines. And that’s not one of them that’s going to be credible.’’
    After three major contests with three different winners, Republicans are deep in an anything-goes scramble to win South Carolina, with Romney the latest to take a victory lap. ‘‘I’m not making predictions about what’s going to happen in every other state, but I’m feeling pretty darn good at this point,’’ he said, coming off of a much-needed win in his native Michigan.
    With John McCain also high in the mix, four men were bidding for victory in South Carolina on Saturday.
    The Democratic race also is unsettled. Candidates pressed for advantage in Nevada’s caucuses Saturday after a toned-down TV debate in which top rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama pledged to tamp down arguments between their camps over race.
    In Las Vegas on Wednesday, Clinton took a subtle dig at Obama’s acknowledged lack of management experience. She said she was taken aback by comments Obama made in the debate suggesting it was more important for a president to bring vision to the job than to make sure ‘‘paperwork is being shuffled effectively.’’
    She told Bloomberg Television ‘‘it’s important that we have a president who understands that you have to run the government. We all need to be inspirational and set goals, and I’ve been doing that throughout this campaign.’’
    In Henderson, Nev., Obama promised more of a ‘‘public health approach’’ to drug crimes and said first-time offenders should be given more help to overcome their drug use instead of being locked up at massive taxpayer expense.
    ‘‘All we do is give them a master’s degree in criminology,’’ Obama said. A questioner had noted the senator’s admitted use of drugs when young and said if he’d ever been arrested then, ‘‘you never would be a candidate for the presidency.’’
    Romney said the Michigan primary Tuesday ‘‘gave me the kind of boost I needed.’’ Anything short of victory would have left his campaign on the ropes, after his losses to Huckabee in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire.
    Thompson put his finger on the wide-open nature of the GOP race, with no candidate yet able to score a repeat win in a major contest. ‘‘Everyone gets to be hero of the day,’’ he said. He hopes it’s his turn.
    ‘‘There’s no question we’ve got to do very well here,’’ he said.
    Huckabee discounted Romney’s business experience as an asset in a time of great economic worry. He said his record of creating jobs and cutting deficits in Arkansas counts for more.
    ‘‘You know, that’s what people are looking for: Can you steer the canoe through low water?’’ he said.
    McCain predicted he would prevail this time in South Carolina, the state that derailed his candidacy eight years ago.
    He cited abuses uncovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington when he promised 100 supporters in Greenville that he would ensure better health care for active duty and retired service-members. As part of that, he said he’d expand the Veterans Administration.
    The former Vietnam prisoner of war spoke in a state with a large population of veterans and reservists, including 1,500 National Guard troops serving in Afghanistan. McCain declared ‘‘we are succeeding in Iraq’’ and would not be if Democrats had their way.
    ‘‘If the Democrats had been able to succeed,’’ he said, ‘‘al-Qaida would be announcing today that they had beaten the United States of America.’’
    The crowd applauded regularly, but was somewhat subdued. Steve Schmidt, a McCain campaign strategist, conceded that Romney’s win sapped some of the Arizona senator’s momentum. But ‘‘we are very well positioned in South Carolina,’’ he said, because McCain relates well to those in uniform.
    In Michigan, Romney won 39 percent of the vote, McCain had 30 percent and Huckabee 16 percent. No other Republican fared better than single digits.
    McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2000 only to see his campaign run into a wall in South Carolina, where George W. Bush emerged victorious and went on to wrap up the GOP nomination.
    The top Democratic candidates — Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — were locked in a tight battle in Nevada.
    In their debate, Clinton and Obama sought to defuse their flash-point over race, including comments by the former first lady on President Lyndon Johnson’s role in winning approval of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, comments that some of Obama’s backers suggested belittled the role of Martin Luther King Jr.
    They jointly pledged on the slain civil rights leader’s birthday to put the matter behind them. Obama is seeking to become the nation’s first black president.
    Clinton won the Democratic primary in Michigan, but her victory was essentially meaningless since the contest was held in violation of party rules and major Democratic candidates did not campaign there.

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