(CNN) – John McCain Sunday brushed aside suggestions exit polls from the South Carolina Republican primary suggest he still is failing to garner widespread support from his party's base.
"I got more votes than anybody else, and it says that I got it from across the spectrum from all over the state," McCain told CNN's Dana Bash. "We expected this to be a very highly contested race, and for the 28 years the candidate who has won South Carolina has been the nominee of the party."
The Arizona senator edged out Mike Huckabee Saturday night in the first Southern primary of the race, 33 percent to 30 percent. But according to exit polling, McCain narrowly trailed Huckabee in support from the 80 percent of primary voters who identified themselves as Republicans. Huckabee won 32 percent of their support compared to McCain's 31 percent. (McCain overwhelmingly won among the remaining 20 percent of primary voters who identified themselves as independents.)
McCain has long had difficulty currying favor from his party's conservative wing. Despite his solid voting record in the senate, many ardent Republicans have been unhappy with his past willingness to team up with liberal Sens. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform and Ted Kennedy on immigration. McCain drew only 26 percent of the conservative vote in South Carolina Saturday.
Support from the base will be crucial in upcoming contests: McCain now faces a bevy of state primaries where independents are not allowed to participate, beginning with Florida’s vote on January 29. But the Arizona senator is predicting that his support among veterans, his economic proposals, and his record on environmental issues important to many Floridians will carry him to victory there.
Related video: Watch Dana Bash's interview with Sen. McCain
– CNN Ticker Producer Alexander Mooney