By Niall Stanage - 02/20/16 10:15 PM EST
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump thought biker rally crowd would resemble ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Weld wins Libertarian nomination for VP Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals MORE is the red-hot favorite to become the Republican presidential nominee after an emphatic victory here in the South Carolina GOP primary Saturday.
With 99 percent of returns in, Trump appears to have vanquished his closest rivals, Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzDems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Meet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Party chairs see reversal of fortune MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio apologized to Trump for 'small hands' crack Sunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on Fla. Senate candidate bashes Rubio MORE (Florida) by about 10 points in the Palmetto State, which has a near-perfect record of backing the eventual winner of the Republican nomination for almost four decades.
Trump now heads for Nevada, where GOP caucuses will be held on Tuesday, and toward March 1, Super Tuesday, when Republicans in 11 states vote.
If Trump’s candidacy does not come apart at the seams within the next 10 days — and there is no reason to expect that it will do so, given the number of storms it has weathered to date — it is increasingly difficult to see how any of his rivals will stop him from becoming the party’s standard-bearer.
It is an extraordinary situation for a candidate who was derided when he first entered the race eight months ago and whose demise has been predicted every step of the way. But he has led national polls for months, and has two victories and one second-place finish in three contests to date.
The mirror image to Trump’s success was provided by Jeb Bush, who withdrew from the race in an emotional speech after a dismal finish here. The former Florida governor, who was the prohibitive favorite when the race began, never got traction with a restive Republican electorate that was in no mood to back the sober-minded scion of a family that has already had two presidents.
As of 10 p.m. Saturday, Bush was still not assured of beating Ohio Gov. John Kasich for fourth place here — a state that he had in the past guaranteed he would win, and where his brother, former President George W. Bush, had joined him on the campaign trial.
The picture is a good deal more complicated for Cruz and Rubio. The latter will be happier with his result here, as he came closer to surpassing expectations. He also has the opportunity to present himself as the candidate whom establishment-friendly voters need to rally behind if they have any chance of stopping Trump.
Cruz’s finish will come as a significant disappointment in a state where he was once seen as a likely winner.
The high proportion of evangelicals in South Carolina stayed true to their reputation for being a more politically diverse bunch than their counterparts in Iowa. And Cruz’s vaunted campaign machiney did not prove as effective in this primary state as it had done in the earlier caucuses.
He asserted in his election night speech that he had exceeded expectations and that he was the only person capable of beating Trump. But the first assertion stretched credulity and the second one would be met with major pushback from Rubio backers.
The two other remaining candidates in the field, Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson can take some measure of satisfaction that they were broadly competitive with Bush. Still, they were not factors here, and it is hard to see how that will change in any state still to come.
It was Trump’s night. The wave of anti-establishment anger and economic insecurity that he rode to victory in New Hampshire, and which has sustained him atop national polls, washed through South Carolina, delivering him victories in almost every county across the state.
The only exceptions appear to be a handful of counties in and around the cities of Columbia and Charleston.
The comprehensiveness of his victory is important for reasons far beyond morale-boosting and bragging rights.
If Trump ultimately carries all of South Carolina’s seven congressional districts — he would win all of the 50 delegates on offer. He appears certain of at least 41.
To put that in perspective, the first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, have yielded Trump 17 delegates, Cruz 11 and Rubio 10. A clean sweep here would therefore leave Trump with more than six times as many delegates as Cruz.
“There’s nothing easy about running for president,” Trump said. “It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, vicious, and it’s beautiful. When you win it’s beautiful.”