Trump poised to step on the GOP accelerator

SC Primary: Trump in, Bush out

Donald Trump carried evangelical voters in the GOP primary on Saturday, surpassing both evangelical darling Ted Cruz and establishment leader Marco Rubio. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, exited the race for good.
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Donald Trump carried evangelical voters in the GOP primary on Saturday, surpassing both evangelical darling Ted Cruz and establishment leader Marco Rubio. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, exited the race for good.

Things sure look good for Donald Trump.

The Republican presidential race expanded across the country Sunday, and polls show the real estate mogul ahead in eight of the dozen states voting in the next nine days.

Trump has now won primaries in two very different states, center-right New Hampshire and evangelical-dominated South Carolina. And the Republican Party system of choosing a presidential nominee favors candidates who continue to win early primaries and caucuses.

“He seems to have about a third of the Republican electorate under his spell, and it’s a durable, non-ideological coalition,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball Sunday.

The biggest hope for stopping Trump is for a single strong challenger to emerge, and so far that hasn’t happened.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., finished second Saturday in South Carolina, but he was 10 percentage points behind Trump and barely edged Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, even though Rubio barnstormed the state with popular Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Rubio also lacks an obvious state where he can win in the next few weeks. He should be a favorite in Tuesday’s Nevada caucus. Rubio lived in Las Vegas as a child, was a church member, and Sunday picked up the endorsement of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada. But a CNN/ORC poll last week showed Trump with a huge lead, with more support than Rubio and Cruz combined.

Trump had 45 percent, Rubio 19 percent and Cruz 17 percent in the Feb. 10-15 CNN/ORC Nevada GOP caucus poll

A week later, Rubio faces primaries and caucuses in 11 states where voters will award delegates, including seven Southern or border states where Cruz is making a strong push. Polls show Rubio ahead in only one Super Tuesday state, Minnesota, though he could contend in Virginia and Tennessee, which have big moderate GOP constituencies.

Rubio’s best hope is that once the campaign moves into larger, more diverse states on March 8 that he can emerge as the mainstream hope. He previewed his pitch Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” saying, “I give us the best chance to unify.”

But in Michigan, which votes that day, and Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, which vote a week later, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is making a strong effort for the same constituency.

Cruz has a more daunting test.

South Carolina should have ignited his crusade for a more God-fearing America. Everything was in place, including a big momentum-filled downtown Charleston rally Friday with “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity and a surprise endorsement from Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.

Instead, Cruz not only finished third, but exit polls showed he trailed Trump among evangelicals. In the upcoming contests, he also has to contend with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who’s far behind but appeals to the same voters.

Imagine for a second Phil Robertson as ambassador to the United Nations.

Ted Cruz in a speech to South Carolina voters

The challenge for Trump’s rivals is that his appeal transcends traditional political boundaries. The future of Trump’s candidacy was apparent last week when he stopped in wealthy Kiawah Island, a southeastern South Carolina residential and resort community. The audience was a well-educated, politically sophisticated group full of teachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors and retired government workers.

They tended to be over 55 and had worked in bureaucracies all their lives. They appreciated Trump’s ability to cut through the rhetoric.

“I’m tired of all the political correctness,” said Isabel Romero, a former Army finance official. “He appeals to your heart and he appeals to the middle class.”

“He’s credible,” said Phil Bernstein, a retired intelligence analyst. Bernstein described how often he’ll holler at the television when he sees reports about government he thinks misses the point. Trump gets to the point, Bernstein said.

Life at work for these people was tough enough, but now they have to deal with the government for their Medicare, Social Security and other benefits. And they’re finding it a nearly indecipherable maze.

You have to give the guy credit for being honest.

John Nichols, a South Carolina attorney, talking about Donald Trump

Trump is going to find plenty of people such as these as the race goes west and south.

Trump is also going to find a delegate selection process to his liking. The Republican race now is less about who finishes second or third than who can win the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus deliberately crafted a process designed to produce a nominee quickly. By March 15, about 60 percent of Republican delegates will have been chosen.

Rules favor winners. In some states, candidates must get at least 20 percent of the vote to win delegates. In theory, if someone won 35 percent, and no one else got 20 percent, that candidate would win all the state’s delegates.

On March 15, the system changes again to promote an early nominee. States then can award all their delegates to the winner, period, no matter what the margin. That means someone could squeak through in Florida, which has a March 15 primary, and get all its 99 delegates.

Priebus is eager for a quick result. “I can’t control everyone’s mouth,” he said on the “Politinerds” radio show, “but I can control how long we have to kill each other.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for “Duck Dynasty.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

GOP primaries and caucuses

The major upcoming Republican primaries and caucuses where delegates will be allocated, and number of total delegates (1,237 needed to nominate):

February 23 . . . Nevada caucus, 30 delegates.

March 1. . . Alabama primary, 50 delegates

Alaska caucus, 28 delegates

Arkansas primary, 40 delegates

Georgia primary, 76 delegates

Massachusetts primary, 42 delegates

Minnesota caucus, 38 delegates

Oklahoma primary, 43 delegates

Tennessee primary, 58 delegates

Texas primary, 155 delegates

Vermont primary, 16 delegates

Virginia primary, 49 delegates