WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is looking ever more in control of the race for the Republican presidential nomination after a resounding victory in the South Carolina primary, leaving Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz playing tug-of-war over who’s the strongest anti-Trump candidate.
In the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton blunted concerns about her viability with a clear victory over Bernie Sanders in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, the first state to test the Democrats’ appeal among a racially diverse group of voters.
Trump’s victory in South Carolina on Saturday was vindication for political mavericks whose hunger for an outsider has defined this year’s campaign. But those fortunes didn’t extend to Sanders this weekend. After winning the second contest in New Hampshire, the self-described democratic socialist came up in short in Nevada, where Clinton collected the majority of delegates and told gleeful supporters that “this one is for you.”
For Republican Jeb Bush, it was the end of the line for a political dynasty as he failed to follow his father and brother into the White House. With donors ready to bolt, the former Florida governor, who had entered the race as the front-runner last year and outspent his rivals, dropped out of the race after failing to break into the top three in the first three nominating contests.
The Republican candidates were fanning out Sunday to Nevada, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia and beyond as the race spreads out and speeds up after the kickoff trio of contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Nevada’s Republican caucuses are Tuesday, and then a dozen states vote in the March 1 Super Tuesday bonanza.
Trump opted against his trademark braggadocio in assessing the state of the race on Sunday.
Asked on CBS if the race was his to lose, the billionaire businessman said, “I don’t want to say it’s mine. Certainly I’m leading, there’s no question about that, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Trump acknowledged that he probably needs to act more presidential. The real estate mogul told “Fox News Sunday,” “I think I’ll be very presidential at the appropriate time. Right now, I’m fighting for my life.”
Rubio, who placed second in South Carolina based on complete but unofficial returns, argued that his policy specifics trump Trump’s big talk. “If you’re running for president of the United States, you can’t just tell people you’re going to make America great again,” the Florida senator said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Cruz, who was edged out by Rubio in the South Carolina vote, stressed his conservative credentials and said he was the lone “strong conservative in this race who can win. We see conservatives continuing to unite behind our campaign,” the Texas senator told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Democrats next compete Saturday in South Carolina with Clinton expected to win by a large margin in a state where African-Americans make up more than half of the Democratic primary electorate. A large majority of black caucus-goers supported Clinton in Nevada.
Clinton celebrated her Nevada triumph but acknowledged she has work to do in persuading voters that she has their best interests at heart.
“I think there’s an underlying question that maybe is really in the back of people’s minds and that is, you know, is she in it for us or is she in it for herself?” Clinton said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think that is a question that people are trying to sort through.”
Sanders took a hard look at the where the delegate math takes him from here. He acknowledged that while he has made gains on Clinton, “at the end of the day … you need delegates.” He looked past South Carolina and ticked off Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Oklahoma as places where he hopes to do well on Super Tuesday when Democrats hold contests in 11 states.
Trump, now the clear leader in the race for delegates, cemented his standing as his party’s favorite. No Republican in modern times has won New Hampshire and South Carolina and then failed to win the nomination.
“It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious,” Trump said of the rollicking presidential campaign. “It’s beautiful. When you win, it’s beautiful.”
A string of victories for Clinton and Trump in Super Tuesday contests would give them commanding leads in the race for delegates who will choose the nominees at the parties’ national conventions in July, dampening prospects for their rivals to catch up. Already, Trump leads Republicans with 61 of the needed 1,237 delegates, while Clinton has 503 to Sanders’ 70, including superdelegates — elected officials and party leaders who can back the candidate of their choice regardless of the primary results in their states.
The biggest question facing Republicans now is whether those seeking to spoil a Trump nomination have simply run out of time.
Rubio and Cruz argued that with roughly 70 percent of Republican voters consistently voting for someone other than Trump, they have an opening as the Republican field keeps shrinking.
Rubio called it the “alternative-to-Donald-Trump vote,” and predicted it would coalesce around him.
Cruz countered that he’s the only Republican who’s been able to beat Trump so far, referring to his victory in leadoff Iowa.
The billionaire businessman has in the past eight months defied his critics and proven his White House bid is not simply a surreal stunt.
To the shock of the political world, the 69-year-old onetime reality TV star’s nomination to be the Republican presidential candidate is now a genuine possibility.
His populist campaign has morphed into a national protest movement targeting Washington elites and establishment “politicians.”
He has rallied fiscal and social conservatives as well as moderate Republicans who could propel him to the nomination — but the GOP trophy will depend on the behavior of other party rivals still in the race.
The crowded field shrank by one after Saturday’s South Carolina primary slugfest, leaving five: Trump, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and two underdogs — Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Trump has a solid support base of about 30-35 percent of the Republican vote: He won New Hampshire with 35 percent and South Carolina with 32.5 percent. In national polls, he is averaging about 34 percent support.
So long as the remaining votes are divided between other candidates, as occurred in the first three nomination contests, Trump appears unbeatable.
And from March 15, most states will award their delegates via the winner-take-all method, which would help Trump clinch the nomination before the Republican convention in July in Cleveland.
But if several others withdraw — as Jeb Bush did Saturday after faring poorly in South Carolina — voters could in theory elevate a challenger capable of uniting the Republican electorate against Trump.
“I do think Trump has a ceiling, probably around 40 percent, and that he’s not going to do much better than that,” explained University of Massachusetts political science professor Brian Schaffner, who also directs the UMass Poll.
Trump might snag some voters from Carson, who is popular with evangelicals, should the doctor drop out, and he is likely to earn trickles of support from Bush and others who suspend their campaigns.
But Schaffner has studied surveys about voters’ second, third and fourth choices, and has concluded that it’s pretty black or white on Trump.
“Most of the people who don’t support him really have no interest in supporting him,” and the majority of those who had backed Bush or Kasich — symbols of the establishment — would switch allegiance to either Cruz or Rubio, he explained.
Trump has no patience or use for the calculations of such “geniuses,” and who can blame him? He has defied expectations daily since last summer.
“They don’t understand that as people drop out,” Trump said Saturday night, “I’m going to get a lot of those votes also.”
Indeed, voters are hardly beholden to the prognostications of political experts. They may be more sensitive to personality traits than political platforms.
Trump’s indisputable talent “is to keep the focus on him” and not necessarily his policies, generic as they are, said Timothy Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
America’s political left has essentially anointed Trump a bona fide front-runner.
“Nothing is certain in politics,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of web-based Talking Points Memo.
“But it’s time to dispense with any faith-based logic that disputes the fact that Donald Trump is now the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination.”
Cruz, a champion of the religious right, is struggling to reach voters beyond his arch-conservative core, but he is determined to hang on.
Rubio nipped Cruz for second place on Saturday in South Carolina, consolidating his position as the mainstream darling.
“After tonight, this has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination!” Rubio told cheering supporters.
There are indeed some obstacles in Trump’s path, notably involving his campaign organization.
“Can he expand his campaign to more than one state at a time?” Hagle asked.
Eleven states across the country will cast ballots in Republican nominating contests on March 1, and Trump’s campaign team has fewer staff and volunteers — and less ground experience — than his well-stocked rivals.
There is also the scenario in which Trump, Cruz and Rubio remain in the race until the July convention, with none having managed to secure an absolute majority of delegates — 1,237 out of the 2,472 available.
Should that unfold, after a first round of voting, delegates would be released from their initial commitments and could vote for the candidate of their choosing in the second round.
Woe to whoever predicts the outcome in that scenario.