- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The South Carolina primary has become a do-or-die showdown between Republicans Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush over who will break out as the mainstream alternative to front-runner Donald Trump.

Both men need a strong finish in the Palmetto State’s first-in-the-South primary Feb. 20 to attract new donors and sustain their campaigns through a series of expensive multistate primaries next month, which likely present the last chance for someone to unify the anti-Trump vote and mount a serious challenge to the billionaire businessman’s march to the nomination.

But to get that ticket out of South Carolina, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush are standing in each others’ way.

“This is a bit of a showdown now, not just for votes but for donors nationally,” said Republican strategist Bruce Haynes, a South Carolina native and expert on presidential politics in the state. “They are burning through cash and their donors are maxed out. The only place to go is to each other’s donors.”

“Which one of them beats the other in South Carolina could have both a short-term and long-term consequence that is very important in this race,” he said.

They also will have to contend with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was bolstered by a surprise second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday. However, Mr. Kasich has not built a powerful organization in South Carolina, as have Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush.

The Ohio governor has set his sights on later contests in Midwestern states.

The other competitor for the more moderate or establishment lane in the GOP race, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was expected to end his campaign after coming in sixth in New Hampshire.

Mr. Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, is fighting to regain momentum sapped by a poor debate performance and demoralizing fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.

He had been riding high after a better-than-expected third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. He also has racked up more endorsements than Mr. Bush in recent weeks, including a coveted endorsement from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Mr. Rubio compared the setback in New Hampshire to getting beat on the football field when he was a defensive back in college.

“When you’re going to give up an 80-yard pass or something is going to happen, you have to put that play behind you, because the next play will be just as important,” he told reporters during the flight from New Hampshire to South Carolina.

“In my mind, you learn from it, you take lessons, and you move on. I think it will make me a better candidate, but, ultimately, it will make me a better president,” he said.

Later, at an event in Spartensburg, South Carolina, Mr. Rubio told the crowd that he was the Republican who can unite the party and win the White House.

“I am as conservative as anyone in this race. I will hold my record up against anyone running for president on the values of free enterprise and limited government and strong national defense,” he said. “But I am the conservative that can unify this party.”

Jazzed by his fourth-place showing in Tuesday’s contest, Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, is betting that his campaign will surge in the Palmetto State, where his family has deep roots in the political establishment and a history of comeback victories in its primary election.

His brother, George W. Bush, scored a comeback win there in 2000 after finishing behind John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, going on to become the second Bush to capture the White House.

President George W. Bush, who was extremely unpopular when he left office in 2009, was viewed as a liability on the campaign trail, but not in South Carolina.

The Bush campaign Wednesday began airing a radio ad that featured the candidate’s brother and focused on national security, which is a top issue for the state’s large community of retired military.

Mr. Bush also announced that his brother would be campaigning for him in the state.

“It probably feels like a second home here, and he’ll probably campaign more confidently because of that,” said Mr. Haynes. “But he has to beat Rubio. If Bush can’t beat him now, he’s never going to beat him.”

At a town hall-style event in Bluffton, South Carolina, Mr. Bush came out swinging for Mr. Trump and demonstrating newfound bravado.

He accused the real estate mogul and reality TV star of being a divisive figure just like President Obama, and slammed him for declaring bankruptcy four times for his business.

“I’m giving you a reality-based answer, not a reality TV answer,” he said, touting his record of cutting taxes, reining in spending and reforming state government in Florida.

Trump can talk a good game and he’ll win. He’s a good talker,” Mr. Bush said in an uncharacteristically energetic speech. “We don’t need talkers, we need doers.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Bush have been at odds throughout the campaign, though Mr. Bush has trailed far behind the front-runner in almost every poll.

Mr. Trump, who won the New Hampshire primary by a large margin, frequently slams Mr. Bush for being a “low-energy” person, a moniker that stuck to Mr. Bush and which the former governor appeared to be working hard to erase.

Mr. Trump leads in South Carolina with 39 percent, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at 19.7 percent, Mr. Rubio at 12.7 percent and Mr. Bush at 10 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.

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