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Presidential race poised to intensify in S.C.

By John McCormick

One of the most unconventional and unpredictable presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history descended Wednesday on South Carolina, gearing up to test the state’s near-perfect record for picking eventual Republican winners.

Republican billionaire Donald Trump and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders notched wins in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, setting up heated contests with last week’s Iowa caucus winners, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Establishment-friendly Republican governors John Kasich of Ohio and Jeb Bush formerly of Florida were emboldened to fight on after top-four finishes Tuesday, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio will try to rebound from a disappointing fifth-place finish.

The campaigns, whose final snowy days in New Hampshire degenerated into name-calling, counter-charges and even vulgarity, are entering an electoral arena where mean-spiritedness and racial undertones aren’t uncommon. The opening volleys of the Republican primary have already signaled a more charged tone than the most recent contests.

The sniping was underway early Wednesday as Bush said on MSNBC that Kasich had “nothing going on down here” in South Carolina. “He had a one-state strategy.” Kasich, who tried to portray himself as above the fray of negative attacks in New Hampshire, said the Bush campaign’s forecasted assault on him over his military funding record was “silly.”

“I know we can’t just go through this like falling off the turnip truck and saying that everything is going to be positive, because I’m going to have to respond to some of this stuff,” Kasich said on CNN.

Even before voters went to the polls in New Hampshire, Trump launched a television ad in South Carolina critical of Cruz that includes the charge that the Texan “took more than $1 million in sweetheart loans from Wall Street banks” and failed to “disclose it as required by law.”

The most recent Palmetto State polling suggests Trump and Clinton are the leaders within their respective parties, though relative positions could change in New Hampshire’s wake as the candidates who remain in the field shift energy and resources. Bush has pledged a big push in the state, drawing on his family’s political network there, and a memo from his campaign issued Tuesday promised assaults on both Kasich and Rubio, Politico reported.

Rubio and his team were, by turns, humble and defiant. “Our disappointment tonight is not on you. It’s on me. I did not do well on Saturday night,” Rubio said on Facebook, attributing his crash to a debate performance panned for his repetitive answers. “So listen to this, that will never happen again.” Meanwhile, a Rubio spokesman told CNN that Bush’s continued campaign—in which Bush positions himself as the national security-focused alternative to Trump—would only improve the billionaire’s chances.

Trump said trade, immigration, and Islamic State terrorism were issues that helped his message resonate with voters. “I think it started with trade and the fact that we’re just being ripped off by everyone, whether it be Japan or China or Mexico,” he said on CNN.

Diverse state

Clinton unveiled a televised ad on Tuesday making a direct appeal to the black voters who will play a key role in a state that was shaken last summer by the massacre of nine people at a church in Charleston. She’s seen having an advantage over Sanders among black and Hispanic voters, who will factor prominently into Nevada’s caucuses, raising questions about how Sanders can capitalize on his historic success beyond the Granite State.

Riding high from Tuesday’s victory, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said on CNN, “Hopefully the Clinton campaign will get its campaign back on track and we can talk about the issues facing America.”

The South Carolina campaign represents the first test of the candidates in a diverse state and in the solidly Republican southern U.S. Compared with New Hampshire, where 91 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, South Carolina is roughly 64 percent non-Hispanic white, 28 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic.

Blacks accounted for 55 percent of the South Carolina Democratic vote in 2008, when Clinton and then-Senator Barack Obama fiercely competed in the state’s primary. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll in mid-January showed Clinton leading Senator Bernie Sanders in South Carolina among all demographics, with her 74 percent to 17 percent advantage among blacks helping boost her overall 37-point lead.

The coastal battlefield is also a place with a religious makeup more akin to Iowa than New Hampshire, an advantage for Cruz, who managed to beat Trump in Iowa by winning a third of the white, born-again Christian vote. Cruz, however, can’t count on their support in South Carolina to be as uniform as it was in Iowa, Republican strategists said.

 11 days

Fighting is likely to be most intense among the Republicans initially. Their voters head to the polls on Feb. 20, the same day Democrats hold their caucuses in Nevada. One week later, Democrats vote in South Carolina.

Compared to the eight days between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the gap of 11 days until South Carolina’s Republican voting will mean New Hampshire’s outcome will have a longer shelf life and make it harder to paste over whatever labels are stuck on the candidates there.

For the moment, the Republican race in South Carolina is Trump’s to lose, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll. It showed the real estate mogul at 36 percent, followed by Cruz at 20 percent and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at 14 percent.

“I think Trump has hit his cap at 35 percent,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman. “The question is if he can turn them out that day, instead of seeing them go fishing.” Assessing the local forces, Dawson said, “Cruz probably has the best ground game. They have spent the money and the time and they seem to have the volunteers.”

Trump predicted he’ll have “tremendous success” in South Carolina after learning about the importance of turning out voters in New Hampshire.

“I think the ground game was very strong, and we really focused on it after Iowa,” Trump said Wednesday on CNN. “The ground game was something I was not very familiar with.”

South Carolina is, in many ways, a microcosm of the national GOP electorate, with heavier Tea Party leanings. There are evangelical voters in the northwest section of the state near Bob Jones University and elsewhere, pockets of wealth around Charleston and Hilton Head, and a strong active and retired military presence in the central and southern sections.

“In South Carolina, we have huge numbers of religious and evangelical voters, but the evangelicals here behave as voters and not church-goers,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor who directs a statewide poll for Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “They rarely vote as a bloc behind a single candidate.”

In the 2012 primary, exit polls showed white evangelical voters represented almost two-thirds of the Republican electorate.

“I think they’ll be spread out among the top three, Trump, Cruz and Rubio,” said Glenn McCall, South Carolina’s Republican national committeeman.

A South Carolina victory for a Republican would generate helpful momentum before the party’s Nevada caucuses three days later, and into March, when more than 30 states and territories hold nominating contests. The single biggest day will be March 1, when Southern states hold six of the 13 primaries and caucuses.

Picking winners

The contests in South Carolina will play out in an economic environment that’s dramatically improved from four years ago, when the state’s unemployment rate was approaching 10 percent at the time of the primary. The rate was down to 5.5 percent in December, above the national figure of 4.9 percent in January and still high enough to rank in the bottom quarter of states.

Renowned for its beaches, boiled peanuts, hand-woven baskets and barbecue, South Carolina has also been known for picking winners. Since 1980, the winner of the state’s Republican primary went on to become the nominee every time, with one exception. The outlier was in 2012, when a pair of strong debate performances just ahead of the primary lifted Newt Gingrich to a first-place finish over eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

The current field will get that chance on Saturday evening, when the candidates debate in Greenville, South Carolina. “I think you could see someone make a major move at the debate on the 13th,” Dawson said. “You have a whole week to change some numbers before the primary.”

“South Carolina usually corrects the mistakes from the first two states,” joked Dawson.

Scott, Haley 

Up to half of the state’s voters are undecided, Dawson said, adding that he places himself in that group. “I’m torn between Cruz and Rubio and I do this for a living,” he said.

South Carolina’s top elected officials are also split. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has endorsed Rubio. Lindsey Graham, the senior senator and a former presidential candidate, is backing Bush. Congressmen have divided their backing among Cruz and Rubio. Trump has the backing of South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster, long considered an establishment Republican.

Adding intrigue is potential conflict between Trump and second-term Governor Nikki Haley, a hugely popular figure among South Carolina’s GOP voters. She has been critical of the billionaire’s hard-line stance on immigration and has decried what she called the “angriest voices” in her party.

Haley, who endorsed Romney four years ago, is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate. Her spokesman didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

“If she chooses to endorse, it will definitely be top news and will carry a lot of weight in the state,” McCall said.

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