CHARLESTON — Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio are locked in a high-stakes political chess match in South Carolina in a bid to pull ahead in the Republican primary race — or at least keep their campaigns afloat if they don’t. The state’s primary is Saturday.
The maneuvering comes as some Republican leaders fear Donald Trump or Ted Cruz will collect the delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination before a more mainstream candidate can consolidate the support of voters turned off by the brash billionaire and Texas senator. So-called establishment Republicans worry that either could jeopardize the party’s chances of winning in November’s general election.
“We do need to get the field down to Trump, Cruz and somebody,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee heavyweight from Mississippi.
The Democratic field is already down to two candidates — Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Clinton is counting on strong support among African-Americans who twice backed her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to counter Sanders’ surprisingly strong insurgent campaign.
Saturday’s Nevada caucuses are next for the Democrats, with a South Carolina primary on Feb. 27. Both Clinton and Sanders are appealing to black voters, as blacks make up more than half of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina and several other southern states.
For the Republicans, the only thing that is clear heading into the South Carolina primary appears to be Trump’s grip on the lead following his victory in the New Hampshire primary. Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, is also in the mix for a strong finish.
But the more mainstream lane populated by Bush, Kasich and Rubio is more jumbled. Bush’s campaign sees an opening to capitalize on Rubio’s fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, while Kasich’s strong second-place showing there has given the Ohio governor reason to keep his campaign going until primaries in friendlier territory in the Midwest. Rubio’s team, meanwhile, is quietly confident that South Carolina will be a comeback story for the Florida senator.
Bush, the former Florida governor, has deep family ties to South Carolina — his father and brother each won two Republican primaries here — and a poor showing Saturday could leave him without a compelling rationale to keep his campaign going.
As the third major contest in the primary campaign, South Carolina is accustomed to settling divergent results in Iowa and New Hampshire, with the winner here emerging as the nominee in each presidential cycle from 1980 to 2008. But those typically were two-man contests as the race headed South: Ronald Reagan dispatched George H.W. Bush in 1980, the elder Bush defeated Bob Dole in 1988 and George W. Bush topped John McCain 12 years later.
Republican leaders are making the case that candidates who aren’t competitive need to swallow their pride and let go of their presidential ambitions.
Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who remains unaligned, said that if a candidate finishes in the single digits Saturday, “you ought to quit.”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Bill Barrow in South Carolina, and Chad Day and Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.