South Carolina might be Donald Trump’s to lose, but a new storyline is emerging that says finishing second or even third in the upcoming Republican primary can go down as a victory.
With their long-term viability a growing concern in a nominating race that may not be decided until April, the lower-tier candidates arrived Wednesday but only a few mentioned the bombastic front-runner. Instead, they’re appealing to the thousands of undecided voters up for grabs.
Most also appeared to be content with playing for next-in-line positions — those down-ballot slots that are likely to be in Trump’s shadow if his lead stays put.
One exception is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who continued his play for the state’s biggest prize Wednesday: the tens of thousands of voters who describe themselves as evangelical in their beliefs.
Appearing at Ground Zero, a Christian teen club near the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, Cruz went after Trump in his only appearance in the state Wednesday, describing the New York real east billionaire as a liberal in hiding.
“The only way to beat Donald Trump is to highlight the simple truth of his record. It is not conservative,” Cruz said.
He added, “if you want a proven conservative, don’t listen to campaign rhetoric. Ask ‘Who has walked the walk?’ ”
South Carolina Republicans don’t vote until Feb. 20, meaning there are nine days to go until the primary in a race where Trump remains the clear favorite. Though the polls numbers are slightly dated, the most recent surveys from three media outlets in January gave him an average 16-point lead over second-place Cruz.
Those results still leave a large chunk of the state’s retirees, suburbanites, Second Amendment supporters, chamber of commerce types and veterans up for grabs next week. At least 600,000 Republicans are expected to take part.
Trump was in the state late Wednesday speaking at a 4,000-person-strong rally at Clemson University.
Wednesday started with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the second-place finisher in New Hampshire, making the first stop of his South Carolina push at a pizza parlor in Mount Pleasant. His message steered away from the sort of squabbling Trump has attracted.
“They warned me when I was coming down here: you’re going to South Carolina and they are VERY conservative,” Kasich told a crowd of well-wishers. “But people are people,” Kasich added. “I’m not going to run for president by pitting one group against another.”
Also appearing in the state Wednesday was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished in a distant fifth place in New Hampshire. He conceded to a gathering inside a Spartanburg hotel ballroom that he’d been wounded by his poor performance in last week’s debate, where the rest of the field attacked him as scripted and robotic.
“I had 90 seconds in that debate that created distraction down the stretch and we couldn’t get to the message and it probably cost us a couple thousand votes of undecideds at the last moment,” Rubio said. “That was on me. It won’t happen again.”
He finished his address by declaring “South Carolina will be definitive and determinant.”
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who is campaigning with former White House candidate U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., continued his theme of reaching out to military supporters and veterans. During a stop in Bluffton, he spoke of his father George H.W. Bush’s “peace through strength” military strategy and said he would lead “kind of like my brother (George W. Bush) after 9/11.”
He also let on during an early morning appearance on CNN that his brother would be campaigning for him in the state but that details still need to be worked out.
The race also showed a significant winnowing Wednesday as both New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina ended their campaigns after finishing far down the ballot in New Hampshire.
While the other candidates are sure to make a play for their supporters, neither had been much of a factor in the South Carolina race, with little campaign structure or noticeable presence.
Deanna Pan, David Slade, Gavin Jackson and Paul Bowers contributed.