The bombastic New York billionaire who has built a large, loyal following of voters fed up with politics as usual while outraging the political elites with his provocative calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States, force Mexico to pay for a wall along the southern border and deport millions of unlawfully resident aliens, has proved he is both serious and capable of winning. “It’s a movement,” crowed Mr. Trump after doubling his nearest rival in New Hampshire. Mr. Trump defied conventional political wisdom in the Granite State, spending only a handful of days campaigning in a primary which traditionally requires months of hard slogging. But Mr. Trump has shocked the pundits for months. He’s way ahead in South Carolina polls and a win there – a red state whose demographic resembles the Republican mix of constituencies nationally – will confirm him as the legitimate front-runner. He’s already everyone else’s target. “I’m ready for whatever they’re going to throw at me,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday. And his campaign launched an early offensive, carpeting South Carolina with attack ads portraying his right-wing rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for taking “sweetheart loans from Wall Street banks” and failing to disclose them. “We are going to make America great again, maybe greater than ever before,” Mr. Trump promised.
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The Alberta-born senator from Texas, still fending off attacks from Mr. Trump as to whether he can even run for president because he was born abroad, was never expected to do well in mostly secular New Hampshire. Mr. Cruz, a Tea Party favourite who has pitched his campaign to the evangelical right wing of the Republican Party, won in Iowa, upsetting Mr. Trump. The Trump-Cruz battle in South Carolina is already on with duelling attack ads. The Cruz campaign unveiled one on Wednesday showing children playing with a Trump action figure and saying it “pretends to be a Republican.” It also accuses the New York billionaire of being too chummy with Hillary Clinton and shows the toy figure taking a children’s doll house by “eminent domain” to park its limousines. “We wouldn’t tolerate these values in our children, why would we want them in a president?” the ad asks. South Carolina will host at least two prizefights: a Bush-Rubio battle for the centrist mantle and a Cruz-Trump slugfest on the right.
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After doing well in Iowa, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was targeted by his mainstream rivals in New Hampshire. Beaten badly but unbowed, Mr. Rubio candidly admitted “I dropped the ball.” But he told supporters: “I want you to know that will never happen again.” Still Mr. Rubio now seems vulnerable and Mr. Bush seems certain to take over the role of chief attacker, now that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has dropped out the race. The two Floridians – once friends – have become bitter rivals and “South Carolina is going to be a blood bath,” a Rubio insider told Politico in the aftermath of the New Hampshire count. Mr. Bush has unmatched name recognition, much more money, a longer Republican pedigree and the experience that comes from being a governor. Mr. Rubio has youth, charisma and is unencumbered by the Bush legacy which cuts both ways, even among the party faithful. Both need to beat the other in South Carolina. Mr. Rubio insists the stumble in New Hampshire wasn’t fatal. “[I’m]going to be the nominee. It is just going to take a little longer,” he said.
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The former Florida governor, son of one president and brother of another, has gone from presumed Republican front-runner last year to being written off after a miserable showing in Iowa. Revived in New Hampshire but still lagging, Mr. Bush will get some much-needed help from his family in the familiar and friendly confines of South Carolina. In a television ad that began airing Wednesday, former president George W. Bush says this about his younger brother: “Jeb has dealt with crises as the governor of Florida, and he did so with steadiness, and calmness necessary in a good leader.” The two brothers are expected to make several joint campaign appearances during the next 11 days before South Carolinians vote. Senator Lindsey Graham, who scrapped his own bid for the Republican nomination and now is backing Mr. Bush, said: “The Bush family name is long and deep in South Carolina. … The Bush family has been generations of servants. That will matter in my state.” The key for Mr. Bush is to beat Marco Rubio, his former political protégé, and thus emerge as the leading candidate from the vital swing state of Florida. Both men occupy the same political space and one of them will be finally eclipsed when Florida holds its primary on March 15.
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Spurred by a better-than-expected second-place finish in New Hampshire, where the Ohio Governor had spent months delivering his upbeat, moderate message, Mr. Kasich has scant hopes of a similarly impressive result in South Carolina. Rather he needs to survive until the Republican primaries move back to the Midwest, to Michigan on March 8 and his home state of Ohio a week later. Winning those, along with perhaps another New England state on Super Tuesday – March 1 – would keep Mr. Kasich in the race for the long haul. In the meantime, with scant cash and almost no staff in South Carolina, Mr. Kasich needs to limit expectations and remain a viable alternative choice, hoping he can hang on as his rivals savage each other. “There’s magic in the air with this campaign,” Mr. Kasich said after winning sufficient support in New Hampshire to carry on. “We don’t see this as just another campaign; we see this as an opportunity … to change America, to restore the spirit of America and to leave no one behind.” Relentlessly positive, Mr. Kasich will need to maintain that optimism even as he faces a grim outcome in South Carolina where his calls to close military bases will irk large numbers of active and retired military personnel.