GOP candidates vie for South Carolina love

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

AJC on the trail

The South Carolina Republican primary is Saturday, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will be there, just as we were in Iowa and New Hampshire. At the same time, we'll bring you the latest on how the Democratic and Republican races are developing in Georgia and the 11 other states voting on March 1, the day of the SEC primary.

As the six Republican presidential candidates crisscrossed this state the past few days, there was an unspoken but acknowledged fact: South Carolina is Donald Trump’s to lose. Everyone else is fighting for position Saturday in the state’s GOP primary.

Opinion polls have consistently shown the New York billionaire with a double-digit lead and some combination of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich bunched behind him, with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson solidly in sixth.

Not everybody is happy about it.

“I don’t see anything good, anything good, coming out of Donald Trump becoming president,” Kristen Maurer, 38, said after a rally for Cruz at Mutt’s Barbecue on Thursday in nearby Easley.

Trump, however, told his supporters hours earlier in Walterboro, 50 miles west of Charleston, that the haters better get ready.

“If we win in South Carolina, we feel we could run the table,” he said.

Much is at stake, in addition to the 50 delegates the state will award. A Trump win would give him two in a row after his victory earlier this month in New Hampshire. It would deny Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, a second victory and make Rubio, who gained more key endorsements here than any candidate, a dangerous 0-3.

With Trump poised to win, the secondary story lines here are potentially more important. Can Cruz claim second place in the state and therefore in the campaign overall? Can Rubio break into the top two and thereby put pressure on Cruz? Can Kasich duplicate his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire to make himself the anti-Trump? Can Bush and Carson simply survive another crushing defeat?

Thursday morning in Anderson, about 30 miles west of here, Gov. Nikki Haley said nothing is set. Trump’s apparent lead and the scramble behind him are signs the race is still evolving, she said.

“What it says about South Carolina is they’re still deciding,” said Haley, who was standing in an emptied hotel restaurant next to Rubio, whom she endorsed Wednesday. “They’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do. What I know is I have faith in the people of South Carolina. And at the end of the day, they want a fighter.”

These final days here have been noticeable for the every-four-years claims of dirty tricks, too. Rubio accused Cruz of fabricating a photo of him and President Barack Obama shaking hands. Trump and Rubio accused Cruz of using telephone “push polls” to lie to voters. And Bush and Trump continue to trade insults.

It’s all part of the state’s political history, if not its charm. South Carolina’s reputation for dirty tricks was made most famous in the 2000 GOP primary, when John McCain accused George W. Bush’s campaign of spreading lies about his children, his wife, his past. It worked then, when Bush prevailed and ended up in the White House.

Haley said South Carolinians are used to it and know how to spot deception.

“When you come to South Carolina, it’s a blood sport,” she said. “I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because you have to be prepared to kick at any time. South Carolinians are used to this, and they can cut through all the mud. At the end of the day, they make a good decision.”

In 2012, their decision was to vote for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman. Gingrich, however, did not win the GOP nomination, becoming the first candidate since 1980 to win the South Carolina primary but not end up the party’s standard-bearer.

Sandy Chiong of Columbia, a stay-at-home mom, has followed Cruz for years and believes he has the skills and the experience to lead.

“I liked him a lot because he is someone who spent his entire career defending constitutional principles,” Chiong said. “He’s always practiced what he preached. He has a personal record.”

Rubio and Trump, too, say Cruz has a personal record — a record of not telling the truth.

“He holds up his Bible and then he lies,” Trump told supporters here Thursday night. “Let me tell you: he lies, he is a liar.”

Rubio told reporters Cruz is practicing deception.

“This is now a disturbing pattern,” Rubio said. “In this case they literally made up a picture. The picture is fake. He’s making things up.”

Cruz, who was endorsed Friday by U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Charleston Republican, has said little on the stump about the spat. He references a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed him leading Trump nationally. Another poll released by the news outlets Friday showed him gaining on Trump here.

“What they’re saying, beginning in South Carolina, and across the country, is people are waking up demanding, ‘We’ve got to get back to the Constitution,’ ” he said. “Who will stand with the people and for the Constitution? South Carolinians are focusing on this election.”

Bush, who has now had both his brother, the former president, and his mother campaign for him here, continues to get help also from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“Trump values are not South Carolina values,” Graham, the state’s senior senator, said during a Charleston rally for Bush.

This campaign, however, is not all hollering and insults. Kasich has continued to try to carve out a spot above the fray. On Thursday, during a town hall meeting at Clemson University, he embraced a young University of Georgia student who told him of a dark period in his life when a close family friend died, his parents divorced and his father lost his job.

The student, Brett Duncan Smith of Franklin, Ga., said he found solace in God and his friends.

“And now I’ve found it in my presidential candidate that I support,” Smith said. “And I would really appreciate one of those hugs you’ve been talking about.”

Kasich, of course, obliged, and the video of their hug lit up the Internet.

On Friday in Columbia, Kasich told about 100 supporters that he believes his positive message is working, albeit slowly.

“I’m going to do the best I can do as long as I can do it,” said Kasich, who has been endorsed by the state’s two largest newspapers.

Pundits, Kasich said, had predicted he would get swamped here if he didn’t change his message. He said he refused to change a thing.

“I think we’re going to do pretty well,” Kasich said. “All the votes I was going to get in South Carolina you could have put in a Volkswagen. Now maybe you can put them in a van. That beats expectations.”

Warner Wells, 74, of West Columbia told Kasich he must persevere.

“Regardless of how you do here in South Carolina, do not quit on us,” Wells said. “We need you more than you need us.”

Afterward, Wells said Kasich “tells the truth,” which is more than he can say about Trump.

“For some voters, Trump is the Republicans’ way of giving Washington and the establishment the finger,” Wells said. “I get that. That’s fine. But you’re going to deal with the future of this nation by turning a nut job loose? A nut job is not the answer.”

For Bush, Carson, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio, there are still glimmers of hope. At campaign stops across the state recently, many voters professed to still being undecided.

Laura Edmonds, 32, of Anderson attended a Rubio rally on Thursday but said she hasn't made up her mind yet. She wants someone "with sincerity."

“I’m not interested in the canned comments,” Edmonds said. “I want to hear their heart.”