- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A day after the New Hampshire primary, Republican presidential hopefuls were set Wednesday to fan out across South Carolina and begin jockeying for the first-in-the-South primary that has a history of picking the eventual nominee.

Billionaire businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump has the early edge in polling there and in other key states as the race turns to the South and West over the next six weeks.

South Carolina has the potential to launch Mr. Trump into victories in a series of delegate-rich multistate primaries next month and turn his campaign into an unstoppable juggernaut toward the nomination.

That makes the Feb. 20 primary in the Palmetto State the best chance for the other GOP competitors to break Mr. Trump’s momentum.

Mr. Trump’s chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, will seek a showdown over the party’s conservative base, while Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other more moderate candidates hope to surge in a state known for a diverse electorate that often delivers upsets for establishment figures.

“Iowa and New Hampshire are the semifinals. South Carolina is the playoffs. It’s the final,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist and expert on presidential politics in South Carolina. “It’s the place where someone takes charge.”

SEE ALSO: How Hillary Clinton is banking on a Nevada jackpot to steal Bernie Sanders’ mojo

Since 1980, the state’s Republican voters have picked the eventual nominee every four years, ending the streak in 2012 when Newt Gingrich won the primary but lost the nomination to Mitt Romney.

The state boasts a diverse population of GOP voters.

It is home to a sizable population of military retirees who focus on veterans issues and national security; workers in the state’s manufacturing and textile industry who worry about trade deals and economic policy; and legions of evangelical voters whose top issues are abortion and religious liberty.

It has rural voters, gun rights advocates and a coastal region that depends on tourism.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz have built formidable organizations in South Carolina.

Mr. Rubio also has invested heavily in the state, including hiring South Carolina native Terry Sullivan for his campaign manager. J. Warren Tompkins, a veteran GOP operative in South Carolina, runs Mr. Rubio’s super PAC.

But South Carolina and the rest of the South should be Trump country.

“If his candidacy plays anywhere, it ought to play in the South, simply because he appeals to a more culturally conservative, less ideological, more moderate, more secular brand of Republican. And you are going to find a very substantial number of those voters across the South,” said Mr. Haynes.

The multistate contests will begin to test the campaigns’ fundraising prowess for the quickly mounting expense of TV ads and travel, which have not been concerns for the self-funded Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump has held the lead in South Carolina polls for months. He enjoyed a 16-point lead with 36 percent of the vote in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.

Mr. Cruz trailed in second place with 20 percent, followed by Mr. Rubio at 13 percent, Mr. Bush at 10 percent and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 9 percent, with the rest of the field in low single digits, according to the polling average.

Mr. Trump leads in most polls for the 15 states holding “Super Tuesday” primaries or caucuses March 1, though Mr. Cruz led in his home state of Texas and in Arkansas.

In Texas, Mr. Cruz topped Mr. Trump 34 percent to 27 percent in a recent KTVT-CBS 11 poll. He edged out Mr. Trump 27 percent to 23 percent earlier this month in a Talk Business/Hendrix College poll.

Mr. Cruz also had a thin 1-point lead in a recent poll in Utah, which holds a Republican caucus March 22.

Other states with upcoming primaries where Mr. Trump leads in recent polls include Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia.

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