CHARLESTON, S.C. – Saturday is an important day in the U.S. presidential race as the candidates hurtle toward Super Tuesday and its motherlode of delegates, who could decide who gets nominated.
The stage for that all-important, 12-state showdown on March 1 will be set by two contests Saturday in Nevada and South Carolina, where voters will help narrow the field and anoint front-runners.
Hillary Clinton could see her grip loosen on that favourite status if she loses the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, a state with a minority mix that makes it a better national bellwether than the two earlier states.
Donald Trump will be at the other end of the country, seeking to solidify his claim as his own party’s front-runner. Should he win the Republican primary in South Carolina, after carrying New Hampshire, he’d have history on his side: No modern candidate has ever lost the nomination after taking those two early states.
The most important outcome in South Carolina possibly involves the fourth- and fifth-place Republican positions.
A decent finish by the also-rans makes it likelier they’d remain in the race, and keep the anti-Trump vote split when 12 states vote on Super Tuesday. So Trump has reason to hope Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush remain in the fight while he sweeps up delegates March 1.
Another rival wasn’t so ready Friday to concede anything to Trump. Staunch conservative Ted Cruz said the current poll numbers could be a mirage, as they were in Iowa where he won an upset.
“(Before Iowa) it was Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump,” Cruz told a rally. “We ended up winning more votes than any Republican in the history of the Iowa caucuses.”
He was applauded by a crowd that is far more ideologically conservative than Trump, who, like his fans, tends to cherry-pick policy preferences from left and right.
Cruz drew attention to that distinction at an event where he was endorsed by a former South Carolina governor, along with a star of the TV show “Duck Dynasty.”
The latter _ the bearded, camouflaged Phil Robertson _ said Cruz understood something his rivals don’t: “Bibles and guns brought us here.” Cruz elaborated, explaining that the Supreme Court vacancy should be filled by a president who has shown a track record of supporting gun rights, religious freedom and pro-life causes.
Cruz quoted the Declaration of Independence’s reference to the Creator and took a swipe at Trump, a thrice-married, formerly pro-choice, Democrat-donating, Bible-misquoting New York billionaire.
“It easy to say ‘Make America Great Again,”’ Cruz said, referring to Trump’s slogan.
“That’s easy to say. He even put it on a baseball cap. But the question is: Do you understand what it was that made America great in the first place?”
South Carolina voters are religious – two-thirds of Republican primary voters in 2012 were evangelical or born-again Christians. But few made religion a priority in the ballot box, according to what they told exit pollsters.
They also picked the thrice-married Newt Gingrich the last time. Upon leaving polling stations, only eight per cent of respondents said abortion was their top issue; 85 per cent said it was the economy or federal deficit.
Trump’s lead has withstood his previous violations of conservative orthodoxy. He still holds a sizable polling lead in South Carolina, despite insulting the track-record of George W. Bush who remains popular here.
Numerous polls have suggested one vulnerability, however: A smaller field. Trump’s lead shrinks massively in polls about a hypothetical two- or three-person race involving Trump, Cruz and a single establishment-friendly candidate like Rubio, John Kasich or Jeb Bush.
His unpopularity with other factions of the party could hurt him if the field narrows – which is why he’d have reason to hope for strong, campaign-sustaining performances Saturday by that latter trio.
But in a worrying bit of news for Trump, there are reports that Bush’s donors are starting to abandon him – and that a group supporting him has suspended plans to buy ads in future states.
The current governor has endorsed Rubio, and the previous one has endorsed Cruz.
On the Democratic side, Clinton picked up a big endorsement Friday from a prominent African-American lawmaker in South Carolina – where Democrats vote next week, and where she’s expected to do well.
But first she faces a test in Nevada, where the polls are tight.