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South Carolina, Nevada vote in White House race

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Voters in Nevada and South Carolina make their choices on Saturday in a chaotic U.S. presidential race, with polls showing tight struggles in both states as nominating battles move to the South and West.

In South Carolina, Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee are fighting for the lead in a race focused on economic worries, while their party rivals Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson hope to shove their way to the top in a state where Republicans have a history as kingmakers.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a rally at Elko High School in Elko, Nevada, January 18, 2008. (REUTERS/Ramin Rahimian)

Since 1980, the Republican winner in the South Carolina primary election has gone on to capture the nomination to run for president. Voting ends at 7 p.m. EST (midnight GMT), with results expected soon afterward.

"I'm like a lot of people in America tonight. I'm a guy over 50 looking for a job. I hope I get the hire," Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, told supporters at a Friday night rally at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

With economists talking of a possible U.S. recession before November's presidential and congressional elections, President George W. Bush on Friday unveiled an economic stimulus plan of about $145 billion in temporary tax breaks and other measures.

The economy has taken center stage in the campaign as financial markets reel from reports of falling retail sales and rising unemployment on top of high oil prices and a credit crunch brought on by a crisis in subprime mortgages.

In Nevada, Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in a tight duel complicated by uncertainties about turnout. In 2004, only 9,000 Democrats took part in Nevada's caucuses, and no one knows how many will show up this time.

"If you will go to your precinct caucus tomorrow for one or two hours, I promise you I will stand up for you every single day of this campaign and every single day in the White House," Clinton, a New York senator and wife of former President Bill Clinton, told supporters in Las Vegas on Friday.

Republicans also vote in Nevada but most Republican candidates have focused their attention on South Carolina. Republican results in Nevada are expected after 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT), with Democratic results a few hours later.


No one in either party has claimed the role of favorite in a seesawing race to pick the two candidates to contest the Nov. 4 election to succeed Bush, with the first five of the major state-by-state battles producing five different winners.

A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll on Saturday showed McCain, an Arizona senator, and Huckabee, a Baptist preacher popular among conservative Christians, in a statistical dead heat in South Carolina at 27 percent to 26 percent.

In Nevada, where Democrats hoped an early contest would highlight the party's growing strength in the West, Clinton led Obama, an Illinois senator, by 45 percent to 39 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was third at 6 percent.

For the winners on Saturday, the prize is a jolt of energy in a White House race where momentum has been short-lived.

The Republican contenders head next to Florida for its Jan. 29 primary, while Democrats focus on their party's Jan. 26 primary in South Carolina.

Both parties then turn their attention to the critical Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" round of 22 state contests.

Huckabee has been reminding South Carolina crowds of his Southern roots and hopes to make inroads with the state's large bloc of evangelicals, a group that fueled his win in Iowa.

A storm was expected to bring heavy rain and even snow to usually warm South Carolina, which could affect turnout.

"I know the weather's bad here in South Carolina today," Huckabee said on CNN. "That's not a good sign. But on the other hand, I think our voters are committed."

McCain, who won in New Hampshire, saw his 2000 presidential bid crippled by a bitter loss to Bush in South Carolina and has tried to mend fences with his old foes in the state.

He ended his South Carolina campaign on Friday with a rally on a decommissioned aircraft carrier docked near Charleston.

"There is no place I would rather wind up than right here on the USS Yorktown," McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, told supporters. "This ship epitomizes the service and sacrifice of many Americans in many wars."

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who won in Michigan, was battling former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson for third place in South Carolina polls.

Thompson, who got into the race late in hopes of unifying the party's split conservative base, needs a strong finish in the state to have a shot at staying viable.

In Nevada, Obama and Clinton have clashed over voting in casino hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, approved by a federal judge, and over Clinton's comments on race, seen by some as a slight on assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Minorities, led by a booming Hispanic population, may make up about 40 percent of Nevada's voters. Clinton, who would be the first woman president, asked Obama on Friday to denounce Spanish-language radio ads accusing her of disrespecting Hispanics.

The ads, run by a union backing Obama, were "shameless and offensive," she said. The Obama camp said it had no control over the ads and discouraged outside ad campaigns.

Obama, who would be the first black president, will head to Atlanta after the Nevada vote to appear at King's home church on Sunday.

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