By Jonathan Easley - 02/20/16 03:51 PM EST
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRNC official: We won’t go full Trump on party platform Trump courts energy industry RNC’s Katie Walsh: A behind-the-scenes leader MORE heads into Saturday’s GOP presidential primary in South Carolina as the front-runner, with his rivals angling for position behind him.
As he did in Iowa, Marco RubioMarco RubioNew Mexico GOP gov. won’t attend home-state Trump rally Rubio: 'It’s not that we lost, it’s that Donald Trump won’ Santorum endorses Trump after 'long heart-to-heart' MORE is once again making a late charge. Jeb Bush is fighting for his life. John Kasich is benefiting from low expectations. Ben Carson is seeking relevancy.
All of the candidates face high stakes as they do battle in South Carolina’s unique political landscape.
The state is split between social conservatives and moderate Republicans, making it ideologically similar to both Iowa and New Hampshire. Turnout for the first-in-the-South primary should exceed those two states combined.
Meanwhile, the large number of current and former military members will offer a referendum on each candidate’s aptitude to be commander in chief.
Here are five things to watch as votes are counted on Saturday.
Trump’s margin of victory
After finishing a disappointing second place to Cruz in Iowa, Trump steamrolled the competition in New Hampshire, beating the next closest contender by a 2-to-1 margin.
Another convincing victory in South Carolina could permanently do away with questions over how committed his supporters are and whether his base of independent and first-time primary voters will reliably turn out for him going forward.
Political watchers in South Carolina say that as many as 700,000 people could vote on Saturday, shattering the previous record by about 100,000.
That should benefit the real estate mogul, as should the state’s open primary, which welcomes any voter regardless of party preference, and could help him run up the score among independents, as happened in New Hampshire.
Polls find Trump with a double-digit lead heading into Saturday, although late surveys show the race has tightened some.
If Trump posts another resounding victory, he’ll leave the Palmetto State as the undisputed front-runner and the favorite to be the GOP nominee.
If he only squeaks by, supporters for Cruz or those who favor one of the mainstream conservative candidates will hold out hope that his support is a polling and media-driven mirage.
Will Cruz outperform again?
Cruz is the only candidate who has run ahead of the polls on election day in both Iowa and South Carolina.
In Iowa, Trump entered the caucuses with about a 5-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average, but Cruz ended up winning by more than 3 points, turning out the most voters ever.
In New Hampshire, the Texas senator entered the primary in fourth place and was in danger of falling behind Bush into fifth. Instead, he finished in third place in a state not known for rewarding the winner of the Iowa caucuses.
Cruz has benefited from a top-notch organization and grassroots energy.
In South Carolina, The Hill reported this week on Cruz’s massive contingent of evangelical supporters, led by a group of 300 pastors and faith leaders calling themselves Operation Gideon.
That ground support could once again boost Cruz to a better-than-expected finish.
Few believe he’ll catch Trump, but a strong second-place showing would help him crush the establishment’s hopes and make the case that it’s a two-man race.
A surprise victory would change the race entirely.
Is Rubio’s buzz real?
The Florida senator badly needs to regain his standing after a disastrous showing in New Hampshire erased the memory of his surprising showing in Iowa.
Buzz began building around Rubio almost as soon as the contest turned to South Carolina, as the media seemed eager to write his comeback story.
Now, it’s time to deliver.
Rubio has been rising in the polls, pulling away from Bush and running neck-and-neck with Cruz in the second tier of candidates behind Trump.
He has the three hottest endorsements in the state, with Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim ScottTim ScottGOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs Which VP pick will Trump go all-in on? MORE and Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyBenghazi report out within next month, chairman promises Gowdy endorses Trump Pentagon accused of dragging feet on Benghazi probe MORE – the new guard of Republicans on the national scene – furiously campaigning on his behalf.
A strong debate performance last week in Greenville helped Rubio regain his bearings.
Now he has the opportunity to emerge as the unquestioned choice of the GOP establishment.
A second-place finish would be huge for him, while a third-place finish might make him look like a perpetual underachiever.
Is this the end of the line for Bush?
South Carolina might be Bush’s last stand.
Republicans say the former Florida governor needs to finish in third place ahead of either Rubio or Cruz to justify carrying on.
A fourth-place finish would almost certainly ignite a stampede for the exits by the donor class, and pressure would build on him to drop out of the race to pave the way for Rubio.
That means Bush needs to far outpace his current standing in the polls.
The RCP average finds Bush in a distant fourth place, with 10.5 percent support, behind Rubio's 17 percent.
Further complicating matters, the Bush campaign has raised expectations, calling South Carolina “Jeb Country” and his “strongest early voting state.”
Bush’s brother former President George W. Bush, who remains beloved in the state, has been campaigning on his behalf, as has his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, and popular South Carolina Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamRomney should endorse Clinton Graham: I'm still not supporting Trump North Korean official calls Trump idea of meeting 'nonsense' MORE.
The large population of military members should be receptive to Bush’s wonkish style and firm grasp on world events.
He's spent considerable time and resources in the state, so he’ll be out of excuses and maybe out of the race if he posts a poor finish.
Kasich as the wildcard
The Ohio governor was the story coming out of New Hampshire, posting a campaign-saving second-place finish that gave him momentum heading into South Carolina.
He will benefit from low expectations in the state, but could be a sleeper candidate primed to outperform.
Kasich has been playing up the positive campaigning that endeared him to voters in the Granite State. His message has been one of compassionate conservatism and he has steadfastly refused to attack his rivals. Kasich even hugged a young man on the campaign trail this week.
The governor continues to rack up newspaper endorsements, landing the backing this week of the largest newspaper in the state.
And Kasich’s time on the Armed Services Committee as a member of the House should score him points among the military-minded.
Some polls now have him running ahead of Bush. That would almost certainly knock the former Florida governor out of the race, while further legitimizing Kasich’s under-the-radar campaign, and forcing mainstream conservatives to potentially consider him as the alternative to Trump or Cruz.