For all the talk about South Carolina being the death knell for Thompson, who South Carolina really killed was Huckabee. Huckabee is an insurgent. He has neither the establishment support, nor the money, nor the conservative movement mouthpieces to drag him along.
Huckabee has only the force of his own personality and the media momentum perception. Insurgent candidates like Huckabee need to ride a wave to victory and any wave Huckabee had broke on the shores of South Carolina’s coastline.
Huckabee does have the support of a certain segment of the evangelical vote, but his game of identity politics means he’s already alienated everyone else. Right now the media is fawning over the guy they fawned over in 2000, which leaves Huckabee high and dry. He doesn’t have the support to win and he has little chance of broadening their support.
Had Romney been knocked out in Michigan I think Thompson would have probably won South Carolina on the basis of sealing enough of the conservative vote. There’s still an incredibly small chance that as the race continues Thompson could still pull that off—but that’s contingent on having enough money on hand to remain in the race. Right now the conservative vote is split between Thompson and Romney. If their votes were combined, one or the other would be ahead. If they drop out, it leaves conservatives with a choice of John McCain or Mike Huckabee—which is not the most appetizing choice for many, although McCain would almost certainly be the beneficiary in that case.
In the end, South Carolina spells the death of the Huckabee campaign. If he can’t win there, he can’t win elsewhere, and he needed a win to keep his momentum going. Huckabee’s a talented politician, but he can’t broaden his base beyond his evangelical constituency, and he’s made enough tactical mistakes in recent weeks to take the shine off of his campaign.
Thompson may have been put out by South Carolina, but Huckabee’s second place doesn’t give him much room either. The dynamics of the race are changing, and they’re not changing in a way that’s at all helpful to Mike Huckabee. His narrow appeal and lack of experience have ensured that he can’t broaden his base enough to win, which means that his outsider challenge is likely to fail.