Eleven months after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the first Republican to officially announce a bid for the White House, Donald Trump is on the verge of winning the South’s first big prize.
Most surveys indicate Trump will finish first in Saturday’s GOP primary by a wide margin, dissing the establishment in a year when the rules are being rewritten by his populist message.
Still, there are multiple story lines yet to play out: Who will finish in second place? How much will Marco Rubio profit from Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement? Can Cruz collect the evangelicals he’s so openly gone after?
Here are the best — and worse — case scenarios for the six candidates left:
Best case: The military retirees and veterans Bush gambled his South Carolina future on come out in strength, especially in the Lowcountry. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s support helps at a time when moderate Republicans are worried about a November showdown versus likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Worse case: Bush finishes in a distant fourth or fifth place. His financial backers immediate pull out. Bush suspends his campaign. It could be that South Carolina is where Bush realistically throws in the towel, a possibility he denied earlier in the week.
Best case: Simply hanging around. After threatening Trump for supremacy last fall in South Carolina when polls showed them to be near-tied, Carson is at the bottom of most preference surveys. He has a loyal following in South Carolina, but not much else.
Worse case: Carson probably can continue on after South Carolina, but if his level of support runs too low there’s a chance he’ll be shut out from participating in the next debates. Eventually the networks will want only the leaders on stage.
Best case: Cruz has been courting the evangelical vote for the bulk of his campaign in South Carolina. About half the vote in the primary will be from the more faithful wing of the party, so it’s a smart strategy. South Carolina could be his Iowa 2.0 after he finished first in the Hawkeye State largely with faith-based voters behind him. Media personality Glenn Beck has been among his biggest national support figures.
Worse case: Finishing behind Rubio. Third place would be a loss by most accounts.
Best case: Finishing in front of Bush. The Ohio governor and former congressman did not collect many big-name endorsements in South Carolina, other than from the state’s two leading newspapers, including The Post and Courier. He’s run a mostly positive campaign that avoided getting into confrontations with Trump, Cruz and Rubio while trying to appeal to chamber of commerce-type Republicans.
Worse case: A distant finish proves his second place in the New Hampshire primary was a one-hit wonder, spreading doubt. There’s not much reason to go into Super Tuesday since it’s weighted by Southern states. Kasich on Saturday won’t be in South Carolina, choosing to do other events in Vermont and Massachusetts.
Best case: Endorsements by Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy give him a near-Mount Rushmore of South Carolina Republican support. The party “establishment” unifies behind him as he finishes in second place.
Worse case: Rubio finishes third. Top endorsements by popular sitting politicians are supposed to trigger an out-pouring of support, not dilute it.
Best case: Trump beats his own high expectations. If he approaches the 40 percent mark and corners the state’s delegates, get ready for the National Republican Party to begin accepting the inevitable.
Worse case: Trump falls flat. The second- and third-place finishers are within striking distance. A tight race means an immediate opening of financial support for the GOP’s best “anti-Trump” hopeful.