GREENVILLE, S.C. — A crucial day of presidential voting wound down Saturday afternoon in South Carolina, where Republicans are casting ballots that could reshape a wild and unsettled GOP race.
Donald Trump is favored to win, according to recent polling, and a big Trump victory in the Palmetto State would stamp him clearly as the Republican front-runner. But the size of his victory — and his margin ahead of the next two candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — could recast the race going into March.
Polling places close at 7 p.m. Eastern time. Only South Carolina’s Republicans are voting Saturday; Democrats will vote Feb. 27.
South Carolina’s primary has a history of identifying the eventual nominee and often embracing the establishment’s choice of candidates. The pattern was broken four years ago when former House speaker Newt Gingrich handily defeated Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee.
Trump threatens to do the same with a victory Saturday, which would further unsettle party regulars.
Establishment Republicans have yet to fully coalesce around an alternative to Trump, although Rubio, who stumbled in New Hampshire, hopes to rebound in Saturday’s balloting in South Carolina and cement himself in that role.
In Greenville, S.C., Stephanie Thorn went into a small room early Saturday at the West End Community Center to cast her ballot for Rubio while her husband waited outside with their young son. She said she likes Rubio’s conservative values and believes he’s the candidate best suited to carry the GOP to victory in November.
“I think he has just a really good chance of winning because he’s very well liked, especially with the Hispanic community,” Thorn, 30, said, calling Cruz and Trump “too divisive” to prevail in a general election. “He just seems like a really good guy.”
Her husband, Coben, 30, also voted Saturday but cast his vote for Cruz.
“I thought he had the best chance to beat Trump in this state. I’m not as socially conservative as he is, but I like his tax plan,” he said.
They both cited Trump’s dominance in the campaign thus far as reasons for casting their ballots for his opponents.
“I get why people like him. He says how things are a lot of times, but I feel like he’s too much of a loose cannon,” Stephanie said. “I feel like if you put nuclear codes in a guy’s hands like that and he was having a bad day, or — I don’t know, I feel like he could mess up relations with a lot of people.”
Trump has tapped anti-immigration sentiment, in particular, and has drawn energy from working-class white voters, putting establishment candidates on the defensive in a state where they have traditionally done well.
“There is a shift in the establishment and thinking of Republicans in South Carolina from mainstream, center-right Republicans to angry, hard-right Republicans,” said Kaeton Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who is not aligned with any candidate. “It’s a monumental shift against the pillars of our society: our government and our elected officials.”
No establishment candidate is more threatened than former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Once the nominal front-runner for the GOP nomination, Bush could find his candidacy in serious jeopardy if he finishes poorly Saturday, as some polls suggest.
The Bush campaign has strongly rejected suggestions he will drop out of the race on Saturday night if he has a poor showing. He has kept pace with Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, with polls showing all three within each other’s margin of error. Failure to beat at least one of them will intensify calls for Bush’s exit.
Bush began his morning at a polling site in Greenville with his wife and mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, and is scheduled to visit a precinct in the Charleston area later in the day. All week, he has attacked Trump as “unstable” and inexperienced, saying several times that the real estate magnate is on the verge of “hijacking” the Republican Party.
Kasich, meanwhile, is hoping for a finish just strong enough to justify his focus on the March 8 Michigan primary as his best hope for a victory.
The tone of the South Carolina campaign has been overwhelmingly negative, and not only because of the millions of dollars in attack ads that flooded television stations in the final week. The candidates themselves have carried on an acrid dialogue in which the words “liar” and “lying” have been injected into campaign rhetoric at a volume rarely seen even in a state known for brutal intraparty contests.
In the last hours before the primary, Trump sought to brush off two recent controversies — one involving former president George W. Bush, whom Trump accused of lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, and the other with Pope Francis, who criticized Trump’s proposal of building a wall along the Mexican border as being “not Christian.”
During a town hall meeting hosted by CNN on Thursday night, Trump softened his tone toward the pontiff and equivocated when pressed by a voter about whether he truly believed that Bush had lied before launching the invasion.
Rubio spent Friday flying around the state, accompanied by a trio of leading South Carolina Republicans who have endorsed him: Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy. He pressed his argument that he alone among the candidates can unify the party.
But Rubio stressed that would not be enough win a general election. “We can’t just unite,” he said. “We also have to grow.” In an effort to amplify the message that Rubio represents the future of a more diverse party, Haley described the tableau of a Cuban American senator, African American senator, Indian American governor and white member of Congress as “what the new conservative movement looks like, because it looks like a Benetton commercial.”
Cruz, meanwhile, appeared at a boisterous midday rally in Charleston, where he was interviewed by Fox News anchor Sean Hannity and joined by three conservative endorsers of his own: Rep. Mark Sanford, a former governor here who had not previously declared his support; Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame; and David Limbaugh, brother of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Cruz told the crowd that the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia leaves the high court — and with it many conservative principles — “hanging in the balance.”
Calling the court vacancy a clarifying moment for conservatives, he said that before they cast votes they should ask, “Who do we know beyond a shadow of a doubt will nominate and fight to confirm principled constitutionalists who will protect the bill of rights?”
While Trump is favored to win, a disappointing finish could suggest weakness ahead of a round of Southern primaries on March 1. The impact of his recent feud with the pope and his attacks on George W. Bush will be measured against trend lines of late-deciding voters.
He faces persistent doubts about whether he has enough supporters to withstand a one-on-one contest in which mainstream conservatives are consolidated behind another candidate.
Katie Packer, who runs an anti-Trump super PAC and was deputy campaign manager for Romney’s 2012 campaign, said she believes South Carolina has the potential to reframe the race as a three-person contest between Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
“There’s still some iterations to be had,” she said. “Everybody wants to rush for this race to be over. . . . We have to be patient and let the voters decide.”
Balz reported from Charleston, S.C., and DeBonis reported from Washington. Jenna Johnson in North Charleston, S.C.; Sean Sullivan and Ed O’Keefe in Greenville; Robert Costa in Charleston; and Philip Rucker in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.