By Jonathan Easley - 02/17/16 05:01 PM EST
The South Carolina GOP primary on Saturday is lining up for a chaotic finish, with several candidates bunched together in the polls and badly in need of a top finish.
Based on interviews with Republican strategists, operatives and pollsters in South Carolina, here’s a look at the expectations the candidates face and where each man needs to finish to be in a strong position going forward.
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: Sanders supporters 'like Trump on trade, a lot' Clinton ties Trump's refusal to release tax returns to Russia in ad Clinton's lead narrows to 3 points in Pennsylvania MORE
Trump will enter Saturday as the heavy favorite to win the South Carolina primary.
Anything less than a first-place finish would be viewed as a total collapse and embarrassment for Trump, who is sitting at 35 percent support and has opened up a 17-point lead over the next closest contender in the RealClearPolitics average.
As was the case ahead of New Hampshire, Republicans will closely watch his margin of victory to see if the billionaire's contingent of independent and first-time primary voters can deliver him another resounding victory.
Still, Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard told The Hill he has a poll coming out Friday that shows a tighter race, with Trump leading by 8 points and registering support in the high-20s.
Woodard’s poll is only of likely voters — those who have participated before — and he noted that Trump is living on the edge by relying on so many newcomers.
Still, political watchers expect record turnout that approaches 700,000 people, beating the previous record by about 100,000. Like New Hampshire, South Carolina is an open primary that welcomes unaffiliated voters.
That should benefit Trump, who ran up the score in New Hampshire on the strength of independents.
At the end of the day, a win will be a win for Trump no matter what his margins look like. Most believe he’ll leave South Carolina having cemented his status as front-runner and the favorite to be the nominee.
Ted CruzTed CruzPence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults Cruz says he forgives Trump for attacks on family MORE
Following his surprise victory in Iowa, where he rode evangelical support to a record-setting victory in the caucuses, Cruz was the favorite to win in South Carolina.
But with Trump dominating and Cruz on the defensive over his campaign tactics, the Texas Republican is now in the position of beating back a challenge from Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE for second place.
Cruz badly needs the momentum that would come from a second-place finish to make the case that it’s a two-man race between himself and Trump, and to put him in position to capitalize on the infrastructure he has put in place as the contest turns to other states in the Deep South.
Despite a rough week, many Republicans still believe Cruz is primed to finish in second. The senator has outperformed expectations in every contest so far on the strength of his ground game and is running alone in the socially conservative lane.
Rubio’s allies seek to frame a third-place finish behind Trump and Cruz as a success.
A finish in third place would build on the notion that he’s the top candidate running in the establishment lane and the most viable option for mainstream conservatives who fear a Trump or Cruz candidacy.
As he did ahead of Iowa, Rubio appears to be peaking at just the right time to accomplish that feat. But expectations are also rising for him.
Rubio’s polling numbers have been creeping upward and he’s within the margin of error from Cruz in most surveys, challenging him for second place.
He has the three hottest endorsements in the state from the party’s new guard of Republicans: Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim ScottTim ScottGOP senator: Charlotte video could ease tension House votes to eliminate Olympic medal tax Overnight Defense: White House threatens to veto Gitmo bill MORE and Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyClinton IT aide pleads Fifth, skips hearing House Oversight subpoenas FBI for Clinton investigation documents Clinton emails wiped clean after NYT story MORE.
Republicans now say Rubio needs to finish second, or at least be running close to Cruz and challenging him for that spot, if he’s to wash the bad taste of New Hampshire out of his mouth and prove that he can deliver on his potential.
The Bush campaign, meanwhile, has gleefully sought to remind media of Rubio’s purported 3-2-1 finishing strategy in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Right now, the best Rubio can hope for is 3-5-2.
It’s show time or go home time for Bush, who faces a reckoning in South Carolina on Saturday.
Republicans in the state say the math is simple for the former Floida governor: Beat Rubio or Cruz by finishing in third place to justify carrying on.
It’s true that by virtue of his money and his name ID, Bush can absorb a fourth-place finish and stay in the race past South Carolina if he’s a close third.
But that might do little more than create a zombie candidacy for him, in which he keeps running but is an afterthought in the race.
In that scenario, pressure would likely mount for Bush to move aside and clear the field, as many believe the fractured support is allowing for Trump’s runaway victories.
It doesn’t look good for Bush right now. He’ll need to significantly outperform his current standing in the polls.
Recent surveys show John Kasich, who is not overly invested in the state, has nearly caught Bush for fourth place, which would almost certainly be the death knell for him.
Still, Bush has advantages. His brother, former President George W. Bush remains beloved there and is hitting the stump for him, as is Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senators buck spending bill over Export-Import Bank Pelosi pans latest GOP stopgap spending offer MORE, a well-regarded surrogate and former White House candidate.
The Bush campaign knows the stakes and hasn’t sought to temper expectations. From the moment the polls closed in New Hampshire, the campaign began firing out emails about South Carolina being “Jeb Country” and “his strongest early state.”
It won't get any easier for him. A poll released on Wednesday out of Nevada, the next state to vote, found Bush in last place at 1 percent support.
The Ohio governor will benefit from low expectations in South Carolina.
Kasich is campaigning heavily in the state, but is also the only one splitting his time there.
He has campaigned in Michigan this week, believing he can do well in the Midwest states near Ohio, and will spend election day in Vermont, which borders New Hampshire and has its primary on March 1.
Any upside surprise on Election Day — for instance, if he were to surpass Bush — will be gravy for Kasich moving forward.
For him, this week is mostly about enjoying the bounty of his New Hampshire finish and potentially delivering the knock-out blow to Bush. A fifth-place showing on Saturday won’t kill him.
Ben Carson may be making his final appearance on a primary ballot.
Many believed Carson was going to get out of the race after his last-place showing in New Hampshire.
But he’s soldiered on, even as he’s become an afterthought in the minds of many Republicans.
Carson had a shot during the fall, but Cruz has sucked up nearly all of the support from evangelicals that once flocked to him.
He needs a game-changing finish in South Carolina, and few believe he’s primed to pull it off.