S.C. could further narrow GOP field

Republican presidential hopefuls on stage at the debate hosted by CBS News in Greenville, S.C., Feb. 13, 2016. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

South Carolina polls show Donald Trump leading in South Carolina, but with Marco Rubio moving up and Ted Cruz dropping. After that, there is a significant drop-off until you get to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who are virtually tied just below 10 percent.

We do not, it bears repeating, know how accurate these are or whether there will be considerable movement in voter opinion. Maybe Trump’s unhinged behavior in the debate and over the past couple of days will finally take him down a peg. Perhaps Bush’s solid debate performance and his brother’s appearance will give him a lift to move up closer to Rubio and Cruz. Maybe Rubio has the momentum back. We do not know, but it is clear what each candidate must do.

Trump has defied every political rule in the book, especially for a Republican. He praises Planned Parenthood, uses vulgarity, mocks the disabled, insults women, stereotypes immigrants, spouts MoveOn.org nonsense about 9/11 and the Iraq War, takes no serious interest in policy, praises Vladimir Putin and once again threatens a third-party run.

So far about 30 percent of the primary electorate has ignored, or even embraced, this. It is what comes of taking anti-immigrant talk radio hosts seriously and treating conservatism as a style — loud, obnoxious, angry, contemptuous — rather than set of principles, the foundation of which is respect for the individual as the cornerstone. Until South Carolina, Trump’s opponents seemed unwilling to bear down on his obvious weaknesses, but if his days-long temper tantrum is enough to shake loose a segment of his support, we might finally see an underwhelming performance.

The real key to Trump’s success — other than a free media bonanza and befuddled competitors — has been a divided field. The key to beating him is to take six candidates down to three. Consider in the RealClearPolitics average in South Carolina that the bottom three contenders (now Kasich, Bush and Ben Carson) hold more than 24 percent of the vote. Add that to the current support for Cruz (currently at about 18 percent) or Rubio (at about 16 in the RCP average) and you have a new front-runner.

Ah, but you say the voters from the bottom three won’t all go to one candidate — although Kasich and Bush voters are far more likely to go to Rubio, and Carson is not about to encourage his supporters to join up with Cruz, whose “dirty tricks” in Iowa became a flash point between the two. Nevertheless, eliminating the bottom three would accelerate the process of consolidation and put one or both of the second- and third-place finishers within a stone’s throw of Trump. The goal, then, for Rubio in particular, who stands to gain the most from the departure of Bush and/or Kasich, is to not only run in the high teens but also to put considerable distance between himself and the bottom two candidates. If so, the pressure will build on the latter two to get out.

Cruz’ ceiling seems to be the lowest of the top three contenders for understandable reasons. He is getting virtually no support from moderate voters and only a modest chunk of “somewhat conservative” voters and evangelicals. He is not extreme enough for the unhinged Trump voters and is still unacceptable to most mainstream voters. He has a solid base of support, but since Iowa (where his monster organization was able to turn out his voters) he managed only 11.7 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and is under 18 percent in South Carolina. Cruz needs to demonstrate broader support and present himself as a viable alternative to supporters of the bottom three; so far he has not done that.

Bush’s situation is critical if not dire. He will need to come virtually even with Rubio so as to justify his continued presence in the race. You can see why, then, he is pulling out all the stops.

He had an excellent debate and his brother’s presence may well pump up his supporters. At this stage it is hard to see how he could possibly be doing anything more. If he catches or surpasses Rubio, he will have defied the odds and resurrected his campaign. If, however, he finishes in single digits or comes in far behind the top three, the great affection for his family, the high-mindedness of his policy ideas and the sincerity of his appeal will not be enough to keep him in the hunt of the nomination. He might stay in until Nevada (Feb. 23), but the calls to leave the race before March 1 will intensify.

In sum, it’s possible to see another substantial narrowing of the field after South Carolina. In the best-case scenario for anti-Trump Republicans, the race will get down to three, Trump will be a diminished figure and the candidate who picks up the majority of votes from the bottom three candidates will become the top contender for mainstream Republicans. In the worst case scenario for the GOP and the country, Trump will continue to soar and other candidates will remain so tightly bunched that no clear alternative emerges.

South Carolina voters cannot immediately crown a winner, but they can go a long way toward determining if the GOP is going to be the party of Trump or the party of a viable mainstream conservative.

Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.