COLUMBIA, S.C. – Vietnam veteran John McCain waded into an ambush the first time he campaigned in South Carolina.

Fresh off an upset win in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, the Arizona Republican came under withering fire.

George W. Bush’s S.C. allies questioned not only McCain’s conservatism, but his patriotism. E-mails and fliers accused him of fathering illegitimate children, and his wife of being a drug addict. The night he lost the primary, Cindy McCain broke down in loud sobs.

Now, seven years later, he’s counting on many of those former adversaries as he mounts another presidential bid. No Republican has lost the S.C. primary and gone on to win the nomination.

A January poll showed McCain leading the field with support from 29 percent of likely primary voters. He’s won endorsements from 40 of 73 Republican legislators and dozens of other officials, including Sen. Lindsey Graham. He’s recruited most of Bush’s top fundraisers.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that John McCain will continue the Bush legacy,” says Bob McAlister, a Columbia consultant who worked for Bush. “He’s the conservative who can win.”

Some have their doubts.

“He’s emotional; I think he would act on impulse,” says Katrina Shealy, treasurer of the Lexington County GOP. “I don’t want to say “button-pusher,’ but that’s the way I feel.”

For others, there’s almost an inevitability about McCain, 70. In their eyes, he’s paid his dues. Neil Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University in Florence, calls it a “right of inheritance.”

“That’s why a lot of them have moved toward McCain,” he says. “It’s his turn.”

McCain’s challengers in the February 2008 primary include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who campaigns in Columbia Wednesday. Many rivals tout themselves as the conservative alternative to the maverick McCain. His backers don’t buy that.

“When I start lining up his conservative positions, they line up with South Carolina conservative positions,” says House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Bush supporter in 2000.

McCain’s biggest hurdle may be the doubts of evangelical Christians, a strong force in S.C. politics.

Some of the harshest attacks on McCain in 2000 came from evangelicals. It was a Bob Jones University professor who accused him of fathering illegitimate children. In the heat of battle, McCain lashed back.

He called the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” and “corrupting influences” in American politics. A day later, he attacked “the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party.”

Last May, McCain sought to make amends in a commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Any differences, he said, “should remain an argument among friends . . . I have not always heeded this injunction myself, and I regret it very much.”

“There are some evangelicals who will never vote for John McCain,” says Linda Abrams, a political scientist at Bob Jones in Greenville, S.C.

A prominent McCain backer is state Sen. Mike Fair, whose district includes Bob Jones University. One of the state’s leading social conservatives, he backed Bush in 2000. He didn’t think McCain was conservative enough.

Fair began warming up to him in fall 2000, when McCain traveled to Bob Jones for the funeral of a mutual friend.

Then last fall, the two met at a Greenville, S.C., hotel. Fair says McCain apologized for lashing out in 2000. He found McCain’s positions on abortion, federal judges and support for Israel like his own.

“John McCain is just heads and shoulders above everyone else,” says Fair. “He’s the one standing with our president taking what’s a very unpopular military stance.”

Some S.C. Republicans are looking for a new face. Romney backer and former U.S. Rep. Tommy Hartnett calls McCain “a little long in the tooth.” U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint also has endorsed Romney.

Fair’s support for McCain could mean a lot to evangelicals, Abrams says. But doubts persist.

“Social issues are not high on John McCain’s agenda,” she says. “He may come down on the right side as far as evangelicals are concerned, but they’re not at the forefront.”

A lot can change in a year. McCain has been outspoken in support of Bush’s troop surge in Iraq and developments there could affect his campaign for good or ill.

Harrell, the House speaker, says McCain is a natural fit for a post-Sept. 11 world.

“The world has changed,” he says. “I liked Senator McCain before and it was a close call for me. Now it’s an easy call.”

(c) 2007, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-10-07 1505EST

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