Donald Trump has won the South Carolina Republican primary, a tremendous show of strength in the heart of the Deep South that validates his status as the GOP’s national front-runner.
Trump’s win, following his victory in New Hampshire earlier this month and a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, gives the former reality television star a critical burst of momentum heading into Nevada’s Republican caucuses Tuesday and the slate of 13 states voting on Super Tuesday, March 1.
And the Republican presidential pack shrank to five as Jeb Bush said he is suspending his campaign after a poor showing in South Carolina.
Trump’s performance could unnerve the Republican establishment, since South Carolina has sided with the eventual nominee in every GOP presidential race since 1980, apart from 2012. And, following his risky attack on George W. Bush’s handling of terrorism and the Iraq War, Trump’s win provides more evidence that he can take positions that would undermine virtually any other politician.
“I want to begin by thanking the people of South Carolina,” Trump said in a victory speech. “This is a special night.”
His wife, Melania, made rare public remarks.
“I want to say congratulations to my husband,” she said, noting that he’s “been working very hard.”
She added: “We love you and we are going ahead to Nevada.”
South Carolina marked the end of Bush’s presidential ambitions. Once the front-runner, he struggled for months to make inroads against Trump, who constantly mocked the former Florida governor’s “low energy” and for spending tens of millions of dollars on his campaign.
But it was Bush’s disappointing finish in South Carolina, where his brother and mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, campaigned for him, that was the final straw.
“The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken and I really respect their decision, so tonight I am suspending my campaign,” Bush said, before being overtaken by emotion.
A battle for second place unfolded between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who dueled over evangelical voters and exchanged bitter taunts in a feverish final week of campaigning.
Earlier Saturday, Hillary Clinton won the Nevada Democratic caucuses, a crucial victory that could ease concerns about her ability to secure the party’s nomination.
Clinton’s win provides a jolt of momentum to the former secretary of state as she heads into the February 27 South Carolina Democratic primary and Super Tuesday.
Clinton faced a surprisingly spirited challenge in Nevada from Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. The two were in a virtual dead heat in recent days. A win by Sanders, who trounced Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, would have dealt Clinton a dramatic setback.
Clinton relied on strong turnout from Latino voters to hold Sanders at bay. Her surrogates fanned out across the Silver State this week, attempting to portray her as the more trustworthy candidate for Latinos.
“Thank you, Nevada,” Clinton said in a victory speech. “Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other.”
Sanders told his supporters he called Clinton to congratulate her. Despite his defeat, he vowed to take his campaign nationwide, notably looking past South Carolina, where Clinton is leading the polls, to a clutch of primaries on March 1.
“I believe on Super Tuesday, we have got an excellent chance to win many of those states,” Sanders said. “It is clear to me and most observers that the wind is at our backs. We have the momentum and I believe that when Democrats assemble in Philadelphia in July at that convention, we are going to see the results of one of the great political upsets in the history of the United States.”
Trump went into the vote as the front-runner after a frenzied final week of campaigning that saw the billionaire real-estate mogul wage a rhetorical war with Pope Francis and several candidates bluntly accuse their rivals of peddling outright lies.
There was a furor over doctored pictures of Rubio in a handshake with President Barack Obama and a shouting match — again initiated by Trump’s willingness to slay sacred cows — over who was to blame for 9/11.
And Trump managed to draw controversy in his final rally before the primary Friday night, when he told an apocryphal story of Gen. John Pershing, who purportedly dipped bullets in pigs’ blood to execute Muslim prisoners a century ago in an effort to deter Islamic terrorism. Rubio, speaking to NBC’s “Today” show on Saturday, called the tale “bizarre” and said “that’s not what the United States is all about.”
Trump’s victory will send new shock waves through the Republican establishment and possibly augur another strong showing for the front-runner in Southern states with a similar ideological profile on Super Tuesday.
It’s also a good approximation of the party as a whole. It has a mixture of conservative and evangelical voters, particularly in the northwest of the state, and an influential bloc of retired military veterans who hanker for a tough message on national security, with more moderate Republicans on the Atlantic coast — where cities have swelled with migrants from northern states.
Behind Trump, a furious battle is raging for second place between a pair of Cuban-American senators, Rubio and Cruz, who have engaged in a series of angry exchanges that reflect the intensity of the South Carolina race.
Rubio is looking for a strong performance on Saturday to validate the comeback story he has been building after slumping to fifth place in New Hampshire. Just days earlier he was pummeled in a debate by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has since dropped out of the race.
Rubio secured the endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, both rising stars in the GOP, and has hired a group of political consultants who learned their trade in the Palmetto State so must deal with rising expectations for a competitive showing on Saturday.
A good result for Cruz, meanwhile, would lend credence to a theory of the campaign that rests on a string of strong performances in very conservative and evangelical Southern states.
In their latest spat, Rubio expressed outrage at a doctored photo distributed by Cruz’s campaign purportedly showing him shaking hands with Obama.
But Cruz hit back by saying Rubio was just like Trump and had a thin skin when it was his turn to absorb an attack. “They start screaming, ‘liar, liar, liar,'” Cruz said.