(CNN) — Donald Trump will win the South Carolina Republican primary, CNN projected Saturday, giving Trump 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, the gives billionaire real-estate mogul a critical burst of momentum heading into Nevada’s Republican caucuses Tuesday and onto the 13 states voting on Super Tuesday, March 1.
His performance could unnerve the Republican establishment, since South Carolina has been a reliable barometer of conservative opinion after siding with the eventual nominee in every GOP presidential race since 1980, apart from in 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.
At stake in South Carolina are 50 of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.
Trump went into the vote as the front-runner after a frenzied final week of campaigning that saw the former reality television star wage a rhetorical war with Pope Francis.
And there was a furor in the race over doctored pictures of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in a Photoshopped 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.
Trump again managed to draw controversy in his final rally Friday night on the eve of the primary, 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.”
Former President George W. Bush himself was back on the trail for the first time since leaving the White House, showing that his campaign skills are as polished as ever. But the 43rd president may not have done enough to rescue his brother Jeb, who is struggling to gain traction.
Despite an aberration in 2012, when the state’s Republican voters went for Newt Gingrich, the South Carolina primary has historically been a barometer of party opinion, going for the eventual nominee in every other presidential primary since 1980.
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 appeared to be raging for second place between a pair of Cuban-American senators, Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have engaged in a series of angry exchanges that reflected the intensity of the South Carolina race.
Rubio was 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 the New Hampshire vote, 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.
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.
Former Florida Gov. Bush, meanwhile, was trying to use South Carolina — a stronghold for the presidential campaigns of his brother and father — to launch a comeback after bad showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But he has struggled for traction and if he fails to beat Rubio on Saturday, he will face questions about the rationale for continuing a campaign that is currently helping to fracture the establishment wing of the party and leaving an opening for Trump to build momentum.
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