By Hastings Wyman –
The Republican nomination battle may be settled on February 20 in South Carolina when the candidates compete in a hotly contested, money-flush primary. The conventional wisdom, reinforced by polling data, is that Donald Trump will come in first, which could catapult him to a big win in the March 1 SEC primaries throughout the South, and on to national victory.
Second place is likely to go to Ted Cruz, who has strong ties to evangelical voters who account for a majority of the state’s Republicans. Marco Rubio, despite a post-New Hampshire decline nationally, still polls third here. Jeb Bush is pulling out all the stops to break into the top three. John Kasich is trying for a respectable showing, enough to keep him in the race until the Midwest primaries where he should be strong. Ben Carson is no longer a significant factor.
The fiery debate last Saturday night in Greenville appears to have boosted Rubio. In a survey of a nationwide sample of Republican viewers, taken after the debate by CBS News, sponsor of the debate, Rubio came out as the debate winner, with 32%, followed by Trump at 24%, Kasich 19%, Cruz 12%, Carson 8% and Bush 5%.
The first post-New Hampshire Primary survey of likely Republican voters in the South Carolina primary, conducted by Opinion Savvy for media outlets, showed Trump with 36%. Cruz was in second place with 19%. And despite bad press for his New Hampshire debate performance, Rubio came in a reasonably strong third with 15%, while Bush had 11%, Kasich 9% and Carson 5%. Undecideds accounted for a paltry 5% of respondents. A post-New Hampshire poll of the Palmetto State’s GOPers by CBS News gave Trump 42%, Cruz 20%, Rubio 15%, Kasich 9%, Bush 6% and Carson 6%.
Trump has been ahead in this state for months, but these are his strongest leads so far, indicating he got a nice boost from his New Hampshire victory. In the Opinion Savvy poll, he led among all age groups, except that Rubio had a 7% lead among young voters (age 18-29), and among all ideologies, except the few GOPers in the “very liberal” category, who preferred Kasich. And among the nearly 60% of respondents who identified as evangelicals, Trump led Cruz by 10 points. Trump is spending a modest $500,000 on
television ads, but one is especially effective. A black man relates how his son was murdered by an illegal alien and says he will vote for Trump because of his stand on immigration.
“Give credit where credit is due,” says Charles Waring, publisher of the Charleston Mercury. “Donald Trump certainly has momentum and has some very able staff and volunteers in South Carolina. He’s formidable. It’s his to lose.” Trump will get support from lower middle class whites, “people who love to raise hell,” says John Hagins, a prominent businessman and attorney in Greenville.
Richard Quinn, a major GOP political operative in the state who formerly worked for Graham’s presidential campaign and has since done polling for the Right to Rise PAC supporting Bush, notes that last Wednesday more than 10,000 folks “on a real cold night” showed up at Clemson to hear Trump. “He’s a celebrity and draws crowds like a rock star,” says Quinn. “Will they vote? It was yes in New Hampshire, not so much in Iowa.” Trump was introduced at Clemson by Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a long-time fixture in the state GOP (he was once state chairman), who has endorsed Trump.
Trump may be the favorite, but he cannot rest easy. His harsh attacks in the Greenville debate on former President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy could backfire and lose Trump some support. Moreover, at least three super PACS are running ads attacking him. Right to Rise, which supports Bush, has spent part of its $12 million budget for the state on TV ads attacking Trump. The Club for Growth is spending $1.5 million on anti-Trump negative advertising. And Our Principles PAC, run by former Mitt Romney staffers, is expected to spend $2 million attacking Trump here. In addition, Cruz is spending a reported $6.5 million on television in the state, much of it on negative ads blasting Trump for not being a conservative.
Remember that Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary four years ago, only to get skunked in Florida by a plethora of negative ads by Romney forces attacking the former speaker.
Cruz’s organization here is headed by LaDonna Ryggs, a graduate of fundamentalist Bob Jones University and a former chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP. Cruz has been endorsed by US Rep. Jeff Duncan, who represents the 3rd District (Greenwood, etc.) in a section of the state
where many evangelicals live. Cruz backers dominated the county Republican conventions last year as well as the state GOP convention, which Cruz addressed to heavy applause. “Cruz has a lot of energized supporters down here affiliated with the Tea Party,” says Charlestonian Chad Waldorf, chairman of the State Board of Economic Advisors and former chair of the Club for Growth in the state, adding that Cruz’s “ground game is solid.”
A Republican who has been active in the party for years says “Other than the Cruz and Trump folks, I’m just not seeing a lot of widespread energized passion for the other candidates.”
Rubio’s national staff is replete with ties to the Palmetto State, including Terry Sullivan, former US Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R) campaign manager, and Warren Tompkins, a former George H.W and George W. Bush operative. Rubio also has the backing of US Sen. Tim Scott, an African American whose popularity is both wide and deep among his fellow Republicans. Scott hosted a series of forums in the state for most of the presidential candidates, which brought him in contact with GOP activists and voters throughout the state. Rubio has also been endorsed by US Rep. Trey Gowdy (R), a reasonably high-profile congressman – he chairs the Select Committee on Benghazi which grilled Hillary Clinton. However, Greenville-based public affairs consultant Chip Felkel notes, “It’s amazing how precipitously [Rubio] dropped” after the New Hampshire debate. He adds, however, that Rubio “has got a good team… he has to do a reintroduction” in South Carolina, which he probably did Saturday night.
Bush has been endorsed by US Sen. – and former presidential candidate – Lindsey Graham (R), who has been actively campaigning for him throughout the state. While Graham is not popular with “the base,” he has strong ties to the state’s business, political and civic establishment, and his support should help Bush. In addition to having a paid staff of some 40 people in South Carolina, Bush has lots of canvassers going door-to-door for him. Bush also benefits from television ads supporting him that have been running for weeks. Despite getting a bad rap in other parts of the nation, George W. is popular among South Carolina Republicans and is campaigning here with Jeb on Monday.
Hagins, who hosted a reception for Bush and Graham, notes that George W. is already airing radio ads for Jeb in the state. Hagins believes that Bush “may take back some of Rubio’s support,” which was strong in the state
before the New Hampshire debate. Rubio, however, may have recovered after his strong performance in the Greenville debate.
Bush, says Waring, has a “good backing of establishment types, real hard workers and respectable individuals. Will he surprise everybody and overtake Cruz as number two? That’s one of the few paths he has. I expect a whole lot of fireworks from the Bush campaign.”
“This state has been good to the Bush family,” says Felkel. Bush “has a good team in place; he and Rubio will have it out.”
One big question creating “a good bit of chatter,” says Waring, is who Gov. Nikki Haley (R) might endorse. “Either Bush or Rubio,” he muses. But her support at this late date might or might not be a major factor in the outcome.
As for Kasich, he has not spent a great deal of time here, but he is speaking to decent-sized audiences and has been endorsed by several state legislators. Despite his second place in New Hampshire, “I don’t see him catching fire” here, says Quinn.
Primary voters are notoriously volatile. The differences among candidates within the same party are often nuanced, rather than stark. There are six days, two town hall meetings and a passel of TV spots before South Carolina Republicans go to the polls on Saturday. So stay tuned.