Presidential Contests Down to the Wire in Nevada, South Carolina
Two key presidential contests on opposite ends of the nation come down to their final full day Friday, ahead of weekend elections that will shape the tone and duration of the Republican and Democratic races.
The six remaining Republicans face off Saturday in South Carolina’s primary, where Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the polls, while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will compete three time zones to the west in the Nevada caucuses.
The latest chapter arrives with its share of twists—a staple of the 2016 presidential race. On Thursday, for instance, there was an exchange that included a rare criticism of a White House candidate by a pope.
Condemning Trump’s hardline immigration agenda, Pope Francis singled out the New York real-estate developer and suggested that he “is not Christian” because of statements he’s made about building a wall on the Mexico border. Trump responded by calling the pope’s actions “disgraceful,” but at a CNN town hall held in Columbia, South Carolina, hours later had softened his tone.
“I like his personality,” Trump said of the pope. “I like what he represents. And I certainly have respect for the position.”
The dispute between the billionaire and pontiff dominated the campaign Thursday, but it wasn’t clear it would have staying power, at least in South Carolina. Catholics represented just 13 percent of state’s Republican primary electorate in 2012, according to exit polls.
Late Thursday night, in another twist, Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent, Bloomberg LP, spoke at a book party and elaborated on why he is considering a third-party bid for the presidency but didn’t announce any such candidacy.
“This really has been a race to the extremes,” Bloomberg said of the current field of candidates, according to a transcript of his remarks.
Known for its beaches, boiled peanuts and barbecue, the Palmetto State has a reputation for picking winners on the Republican side. Since 1980, the winner of the state’s primary has gone 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 voting lifted Newt Gingrich to a win over eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
South Carolina is also the first test for candidates in a diverse state and in the solidly Republican southern U.S., so its results could be predictive ahead of contests in March when southern states will host a large proportion of the primaries and caucuses. The state’s voting could spell trouble for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who once had hoped to win the state but is trailing badly in the polls. He brought his brother, former President George W. Bush, out to campaign for him in South Carolina on Monday.
Democrats vote in South Carolina a week later, so the outcome in Nevada will be felt there. Clinton was believed to have the advantage in the western state because of a heavily Hispanic electorate, but a smattering of recent polls shows the race tied. A Clinton loss in Nevada, after a crushing 22-point defeat by Sanders in New Hampshire, would further stoke doubts about her staying power in a general election against a Republican.
Reflecting the urgency of the Nevada situation for Clinton, her top surrogate and husband, former President Bill Clinton, will headline his own midday event Friday in Reno, before joining his wife and daughter for an evening event in Las Vegas.
At a Thursday night MSNBC town hall in Las Vegas, Clinton again confronted the issue of whether she was trustworthy. In answer to a question from a Sanders supporter about when she would release the transcript of speeches she had been paid to give to large financial institutions, Clinton played defense.
“I was a candidate who went to Wall Street before the crash. I went to them and said you are wrecking our economy,” Clinton said. “I now have the most effective and comprehensive plan to deal with the threat that Wall Street poses.”
Speaking before Clinton, Sanders kept to the populist themes that have made him competitive with his Democratic rival. “Do I believe that there has to be a major focus on the economy when the middle class is disappearing?” Sanders quipped when asked about Clinton’s critique that he was a single-issue candidate. “Yeah, I’m going to focus on that.”
Clinton is in better shape in South Carolina. A Bloomberg Politics poll released Thursday showed the former secretary of state leading Sanders, 53 percent to 31 percent among likely Democratic primary voters, buoyed by a 3-to-1 advantage among African-American voters. She will also receive a major boost Friday when she is expected to receive the endorsement of the state’s highest ranking African-American politician, Representative Jim Clyburn.
In South Carolina, all six Republican candidates will campaign from after sunrise well into the evening.
A Trump win in South Carolina, a state known for dirty politics and late decisions by primary voters, would be a significant boost for his prospects of winning his party’s nomination.
A Bloomberg Politics poll of likely Republican voters in South Carolina released Wednesday showed Trump leading the field with support from 36 percent, followed by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas at 17 percent, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at 15 percent and Bush at 13 percent.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has found little success in previous contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, was backed by 9 percent. His candidacy is cutting most into Rubio, who is the second-choice candidate for 24 percent of Carson supporters.
Ohio Governor John Kasich was at 7 percent and may be wasting time and resources in a state that tends to favor more conservative candidates. He’s also viewed the least favorably of any of the candidates, although more than a quarter don’t even know enough about him to have an opinion.
The Bloomberg poll also shows Trump’s strongest part of the state is the so-called Pee Dee region, a northeast section that includes the rapidly growing Myrtle Beach metropolitan area. He leads with 47 percent of the support there, well above Cruz and Rubio, both at 13 percent.
The biggest endorsement win on the Republican side was secured by Rubio on Wednesday, when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley threw her support behind him. That could give him significant momentum as he continues to try to recover from his worse-than-expected, fifth-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary on Feb. 9.
Haley, who backed Romney four years ago, is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate. On Thursday, she acknowledged her state’s tradition of bare-knuckled politics.
“When you come to South Carolina, it’s a blood sport,” she told reporters before an appearance with Rubio. “I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because you’ve got to be prepared to kick at any time. Having said that, South Carolinians are used to all of that stuff and they can cut through all the mud.”
Haley, who has been critical of Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigration, downplayed his standing in the state’s polls. “I think what that says about South Carolina is that they’re still deciding and they’re still trying to figure out what they’re going to do,” she said.
A second-place showing in South Carolina for Rubio would do much to anoint him as the establishment Republican favorite to confront Trump and Cruz. It could also go a long way toward extinguishing the flame of the campaign of his one-time mentor, Bush.
Roger Bowman, a 52-year-old ceramic tiling contractor from Iva who attended a Rubio rally Thursday in the town of Anderson, may be exactly what the candidates are competing for. He said he’s still undecided, and he’s been bombarded with campaign material.
“I need to know that they hold the same values that I do and that they’re going to protect the country in a constitutional way as well as a moral way,” said Bowman, who is trying to decide between Rubio and Cruz.
—With assistance from Kevin Cirilli.