( dpa )- The Republican contest for the centre-right party's presidential nomination heads into the next round of contests Saturday without a clear favourite , after three different candidates won the first states to vote.
The campaigns are looking to the South Carolina primary to pull ahead in the wide-open field as this year's race defies recent political wisdom, in which the first few contests to win the Republican and centre-left Democratic nominations generally winnow down the field of contenders.
But after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won Michigan's Republican primary Tuesday and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Arizona Senator John McCain garnered wins in the opening rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, a clear favourite has yet to emerge, and the party's field remains as broad as ever.
Huckabee is hoping for a renewed strong performance in South Carolina by appealing to the state's many evangelical Christians and social conservatives but also extending his appeal to other voters.
In an interview Wednesday with National Public Radio, he attempted to dispel the notion that his candidacy appeals only to religious voters.
"I think, when we get through South Carolina and win here Saturday, people are going to see that there's a much broader support than maybe they had been thinking," he said.
The South Carolina contest is seen as a last chance for Fred Thompson, whose entry into the race generated plenty of media buzz but failed to galvanize voters, leaving him far behind the pack.
Meanwhile, polls show McCain leading in the state, as he is nationally after his New Hampshire performance, and key political allies have been campaigning for him in the southern coastal state.
Still, Romney holds the early lead in the number of delegates to the party's nominating convention in September, picking up delegates from his second-place finishes and wins in Michigan and the little- publicized Wyoming caucuses. He took up campaigning in South Carolina Wednesday hoping to hang on to his momentum.
The Democratic primary in South Carolina will follow on January 26, and Illinois Senator Barack Obama , who would be the first African-American president if elected, hopes to capitalize on the state's large black population.
Both parties will also hold caucuses Saturday in the Western state of Nevada. Democrats have focussed their recent campaign efforts in the state, while Republicans have largely ignored Nevada in favour of South Carolina.
Las Vegas, the largest city in Nevada, is dominated by the casino industry and the world-famous Vegas Strip.
The powerful Culinary Workers Union, which represents 60,000 employees at casinos and hotels statewide, has thrown its support behind Obama . It remains to be seen whether organized labour can leverage a victory for Obama , or whether New York Senator Hillary Clinton can capitalize on her momentum from New Hampshire, where she scored a comeback victory in the January 8 primary after trailing in opinion polls.
Some of the caucus meetings to chose candidates will actually be held in casinos to allow thousands of union members to vote where they work, a potential boon to Obama .
The planned meeting sites have sparked legal action by the Nevada Education Association, the teachers' union, whose leaders include prominent Clinton backers. They have sued in federal court to stop the casino caucuses on constitutional grounds.
Hispanics make up 20 per cent of the population and Democratic candidates have attempted to win their support.
In a debate in Las Vegas, Clinton and Obama addressed whether Hispanic voters would overcome historical prejudices to support a black candidate, with both saying they can move beyond race.
"The agenda for America is the agenda for African-Americans and for Hispanics. And we need to merge that, and we need to have a political system where people feel like they can vote for anybody, because we're all on the same page," said Clinton, who had been criticized for remarks some saw as belittling the legacy of martyred civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, once considered a leader in the Republican race, put little effort into the early events and has not won a single contest, instead focussing his efforts on the January 29 Florida primary, by far January's most delegate-rich state.
The campaign in both parties looks likely to remain hotly contested through at least the so-called Mega-Tuesday on February 5, when voters go to the polls in 23 states.