Trump on brink of key win

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The author of “The Art of the Deal” is on the brink of closing his biggest one yet.

Victory for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents A history lesson on the Confederacy for President Trump GOP senator: Trump hasn't 'changed much' since campaign MORE in the GOP presidential primary here on Saturday would copper-fasten his status as the dominant front-runner, catapult him into a significant delegate lead and make it tougher for his critics within the party to argue they have a plausible path to stopping him.

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And a Trump win in South Carolina is exactly what the polls are predicting.

A Fox News poll released earlier this week found the real estate mogul with a 13-point lead over second-placed Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe media couldn't be more blatant in distorting Trump's words on Charlottesville Curtis wins GOP primary for House seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz Kimmel: Let’s make Trump a king so he has no power MORE.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday found Cruz narrowing the gap to 5 points. Trump won 28 percent in that poll compared to 23 percent for Cruz. 

But the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the Palmetto State currently shows Trump leading Cruz by almost 16 points. 

South Carolina voters sometimes decide on their candidate in the final days of the contest. That dynamic has the potential — at least in theory — to create a last-minute surge for one of Trump’s rivals.

“The odds are still on Trump, for sure, but I would not underestimate two or three of the other candidates, and I would point you to the exit polls in ’12 that in South Carolina said 55 percent of the voters made up their minds in the last week,” said Walter Whetsell, a GOP consultant who worked for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s now-defunct presidential campaign earlier this cycle. “Dramatic, big things are happening very quickly.” 

Many people on the ground, however, see the billionaire as the favorite.

“Every indication is that the polls are right,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign. “Unless lightning strikes, I think he’s in good shape to win this whole thing.”

A big victory by Trump could see the business tycoon sweep all 50 delegates at stake in South Carolina. To put that in perspective, the first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, have yielded Trump 17 delegates, Cruz 11 and Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioScarborough: Trump has chosen the 'wrong side' THE MEMO: Trump reignites race firestorm RNC spokeswoman: GOP stands behind Trump's message 'of love and inclusiveness' MORE 10. 

When the results come in on Saturday night, there will be only 10 days left before Super Tuesday, when 13 states and territories vote in the GOP contest. 

Given the resilience of Trump’s support in the face of innumerable controversies — the latest being a feud with Pope Francis on Thursday — there is no reason to believe his strong position in those states will suddenly evaporate.

The exception, of course, would be if he suffers a shock reversal in South Carolina.

A debate performance last Saturday in Greenville in which Trump lambasted former President George W. Bush, accusing his administration of lying the nation into the Iraq War, has had no immediate negative effect on the celebrity businessman's standing.

“Trump has his base of about 30 percent and they’re just crazy for him,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University who has also worked as a GOP strategist. “I don’t think anybody is going to peel them off.”

If Trump triumphs in South Carolina, he will also have history on his side in his pursuit of the nomination. Since 1980, the Palmetto State has backed the eventual Republican nominee in every election cycle bar one.

“We certainly have that history,” said Felkel, adding that there was no question that a Trump win would “give him momentum.”

Detractors take sustenance from the fact that South Carolina’s otherwise perfect nominee-backing streak ended in the last election. In 2012, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) won the GOP primary handily over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, only for Romney to go on to win the nomination.

The latest drama in the GOP race happened Thursday, when Francis suggested Trump’s proposal to build a border wall with Mexico was “not Christian.”

The front-runner fired back almost immediately from a rally on Kiawah Island, S.C.

“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president,” he said.

Meanwhile, the war of words between the campaigns of Cruz, Rubio and Jeb Bush continued, verbal punches flying in all directions. 

On Thursday morning, Rubio aide Todd Harris told reporters on a conference call that “there’s a culture of dishonesty from top to bottom in the Cruz campaign.” Meanwhile, a Bush aide accused the Rubio campaign of propagating false rumors that the former Florida governor’s campaign was almost out of money. The previous day, Cruz had hit both Trump and Rubio at a news conference.

None of it is likely to bother Trump. Cruz, who has long been viewed as his most dangerous rival in South Carolina, has seen his support plateau — though his campaign is said to have the best ground game in the state.

Rubio, Bush and John Kasich, all establishment-friendly candidates, are tightly bunched in most polls, diminishing the possibility that any one of them can coalesce enough support to endanger Trump’s march to the nomination.

It all spells trouble for those who are adamantly opposed to the idea of Trump as the nominee. South Carolina’s senior senator, Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham: Trump's Charlottesville rhetoric 'dividing Americans, not healing them' OPINION: Congress should censure Trump for his unfit conduct Supporting 'Dreamers' is our civic and moral duty MORE (R), said on Wednesday that the party would “get slaughtered in November 2016” if Trump is the nominee, adding “and frankly we will deserve it.” 

Graham mounted his own presidential bid this cycle but gained little traction and is now backing Bush.

David Raad, another GOP consultant in South Carolina, told The Hill it would be “a little bit embarrassing” if Trump won the state by the margin the polls were predicting, given what he criticized as “his moral flexibility and his ability to shape-shift on the basis of what his audience wants to hear from him.”

Raad is neutral in this year’s race, though his wife is affiliated with the Rubio campaign.

Whatever the detractors say, however, no one has any doubt: South Carolina is Trump’s to lose.

“Trump is clearly in the driver’s seat,” said Whetsell. “Anybody who’s sane would want to swap places with him.”

—This story was updated at 9:09 a.m.