SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Donald Trump rode a week of insults directed at a popular pope and a GOP president to trounce his opponents in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary Saturday, the most convincing evidence to date that his establishment-smashing campaign is on track to win the nomination.
None of Trump’s rivals came close to knocking him off Saturday, despite – or perhaps because of – his position at the center of one of the most polarizing campaign weeks in recent history.
“There’s nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you,” Trump told a cheering crowd in Spartanburg, S.C., late Saturday. “It’s tough. It’s nasty. It’s mean. It’s vicious. It’s beautiful. When you win, it’s beautiful, and we are going to start winning for our country.”
On the other end of the spectrum was the night’s biggest casualty, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who quit the race after months of limping along in Trump’s shadow and as the target of much of Trump’s derision.
Trump beat Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz by roughly 10 percentage points. Rubio narrowly edged Cruz for second place, according to complete but unofficial results.
Rubio declared, “This has become a three-person race.”
Cruz evoked his win in the leadoff Iowa caucuses as he urged conservatives to rally around his campaign, saying, “We are the only candidate who has beaten and can beat Donald Trump.”
The two-three finish of Rubio and Cruz undercut the value of some coveted South Carolina endorsements. Rubio had the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy; Cruz got the support of former Gov. Mark Sanford, now a House member.
Trump’s victory was sweeping. He won among veterans and nonveterans, moderates and conservatives, evangelicals and nonevangelicals, women and men, according to the results of the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and the major television networks.
As he has throughout the campaign, Trump dominated the vote of Republicans without a college education and those with incomes below $100,000. College graduates were closely divided among backers of Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Those with incomes above $100,000 split their vote between Trump and Rubio, the exit poll indicated.
Almost the only significant demographic group that did not go for Trump were those who called themselves “very conservative,” who sided with Cruz.
Trump’s victory capped a week in which he called rivals liars, blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan for the GOP’s loss in the 2012 presidential race, and even tangled with Pope Francis over immigration. Francis had asserted to reporters, “A person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Trump did not come close to backing down, calling Francis’ comments “disgraceful,” and insisting that the pontiff would pray for a Trump presidency “if and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS,” using another name for the Islamic State terrorist group.
Trump continues to alienate large groups of voters – 40 percent of all voters polled in a national Fox News poll conducted this week said Trump was the candidate they would most dread watching on television for the next four years.
Yet he maintains seemingly unflappable support from about a third of the Republican electorate. Challengers are hoping that gives them a one-on-one opening.
To beat back Trump, Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, will need to pick up wins in a slew of Southern state primaries held March 1, and hope other contenders drop out. Though retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has drawn little support, his Christian conservative followers may flock to Cruz. But the Texas senator ultimately will have to persuade more voters to embrace his pure form of conservatism.
Rubio has a different challenge. With Bush out of the race, he needs Ohio Gov. John Kasich to lose the confidence of mainstream Republicans. But the Florida senator also will have to begin winning states, and hope that a majority of Republicans decide they want a more mainstream candidate, despite polls showing voters are looking for candidates who have not served in government.