If his name weren’t Donald Trump, perhaps the talk leading up to Saturday’s South Carolina primary would be about how the leading candidate was poised to run off with the Republican presidential nomination.
He came in second in Iowa, trounced the competition in New Hampshire and has managed to hold on to a public-opinion-poll lead in South Carolina, where his political rallies consistently draw thousands of fervent fans.
But he is Trump. Mainstream Republicans still can’t fathom him as the party’s choice. Not a guy who starred on reality TV. Not a guy who, in a CNN interview Thursday night, spoke in too-much-information-detail about the late Michael Jackson’s honeymoon with Lisa Marie Presley at Trump’s Palm Beach estate.
So the GOP race remains a jumble. Five other Republicans are also competing, splitting the anti-Trump vote. Each state presents another chance to thin out the field before Trump accumulates too many nominating delegates.
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The question in South Carolina is: Who will be left standing?
Let’s start at the top.
Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, are certainly not going away. Cruz has narrowed the gap with Trump in most South Carolina polls, and he could outperform thanks to a strong campaign operation that proved its effectiveness in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Cruz finished a better-than expected third.
Then there’s Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (sixth, fourth) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (eighth, second).
Rubio is third in most surveys, and he’s been gunning for Cruz. Bush, meanwhile, has been chasing Rubio, whom he trails in some polls by only a couple of percentage points. Kasich has indicated he’s not pinning his hopes on South Carolina: He’s instead spending Election Day in Vermont and Massachusetts, which vote March 1.
In a category seemingly separate from the others is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The word from South Carolina voters interviewed across the state over the past few days is that they like him, think highly of his intellect, but won’t vote for him.
“I love Ben Carson. But he’s not going to win,” 43-year-old Brandi Koontz said Thursday at a Rubio event. (She had narrowed her choices to Rubio and Kasich.)
Bush may face a similar predicament. Republicans in the Palmetto State lavish praise on Bush’s brother, his father and, especially, his mother, who accompanied Jeb in the conservative upstate Friday. They admire Bush’s competence and civility. But they remain unsure about casting their ballots for him.
“I wanted to see Barbara,” a sheepish Mary Mabie said Friday morning in Greenville. She’s undecided between Bush and Rubio. Why? “Quite frankly, because his last name is Bush.”
Her husband, Bill, is torn between Bush and Trump. Bush, Bill Mabie said, has “got a lot of depth. He could handle all the questions.” And yet, he added: “Trump’s energy!”
The Bush camp spent the last two days swatting back rumors — fanned by Rubio aides, Bush’s spokesman claimed — that Bush’s campaign finances are running low and a poor result Saturday (not top three, or far behind Rubio) would push Bush out. The chatter began after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio a day after Bush had called her backing “the most powerful, meaningful one in the state.” Bush told reporters Thursday he’s got money to carry on.
With the Nevada Republican caucuses taking place three days after South Carolina, on Tuesday, Bush is scheduled to campaign in Las Vegas and Reno on Sunday and Monday. (The Nevada Democratic caucuses happen Saturday, the same day as the South Carolina Republican primary. South Carolina Democrats vote Feb. 27.)
Rubio, who flew around South Carolina with Haley on Friday, also heads to Nevada on Sunday, after pit stops in Tennessee and Arkansas, two of more than a dozen mostly southern states that vote March 1, Super Tuesday.
The South is considered friendly territory for Cruz and Trump. Rubio backers suggest a less-than-stellar Cruz showing in South Carolina might put Cruz’s success elsewhere in the region in doubt. Cruz’s team has tried to increase the pressure on Rubio, arguing he should do well given his advisers have deep South Carolina ties.
They have also preemptively mocked that Rubio might treat third place as a win, as he did in Iowa. Shouldn’t Rubio have to place first somewhere to be a real contender?
In the Trump era, though, rival campaigns can’t yet hope for victories. They can hope only to grind along, chip away — and try to keep Trump from reaching 50-percent-plus-1.
Miami Herald political writer Patricia Mazzei is in South Carolina for the primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei