Like many of the others who came out to hear Jeb Bush on Thursday night, Tommy Jackson is undecided about his vote in Saturday’s presidential primary. Except for one thing.
He knows he won’t vote for Donald Trump. “He’s just too crazy,” said Jackson, 62.
Many of the 300 or so people who came to hear Bush at a Rock Hill clubhouse plan to vote for the former Florida governor. But others are considering Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired physician Ben Carson or one of Trump’s other rivals.
Stopping Trump appears to be the longest of long shots. He holds a double-digit lead in most South Carolina polls, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another outsider campaigning against the “establishment.”
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For now, Bush and the others are splitting up the mainstream vote.
“Sooner or later, some of these guys have to drop out, including Bush if he doesn’t do well in South Carolina,” said Ray Long, a Baptist pastor from Rock Hill who’s leaning toward Rubio.
Bush took aim at Trump, who has called for banning Muslim noncitizens from entering the U.S. and jabbed hard at critics such as U.S. Sen. John McCain and Pope Francis.
“If we allow politicians to divide us and allow people to insult their way to the presidency, we’re in trouble,” Bush said. “The conservative cause needs to be led by somebody who’s a conservative.”
Bush was one of two candidates in the upstate area Thursday night. Ohio Gov. John Kasich held a town hall in Indian Land. CNN also held a town hall with Trump, Bush and Kasich in Columbia.
For years, signs proclaimed South Carolina “Bush country.” The state gave crucial primary wins to Bush’s father and brother on their paths to the White House.
But for this Bush, it could mark the beginning of the end to a candidacy that hit a headwind of anti-establishment fervor ever since it launched eight months ago.
Heading into Saturday’s primary, an average of recent polls from Real Clear Politics shows Bush running fourth in the state behind Trump, Cruz and Rubio. And at 10.4 percent, he’s closer to fifth place than to third.
Analysts say the primary could be one of the last chances for a mainstream GOP candidate to break out and prevent the nomination of Trump, who won New Hampshire, or Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses. Party elders fear either would fare poorly in the general election.
“South Carolina is huge for the Republicans,” at least those hoping to avoid an anti-establishment candidate winning the nomination, said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel.
“If Rubio doesn’t make it into second,” he said, “I’m hard-pressed to see how long his candidacy can be viable.”
Bush supporters know he also needs to do well.
“We have to finish well here. If you don’t finish third, you have to be very close to third,” said Barry Wynn, a former state GOP chairman and longtime Bush family supporter.
Even that may not be enough.
“If he doesn’t do well in this state, they have to consider getting out,” said Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina. “And it looks like he’s going to come in fourth at best.”
One mainstream candidate who got a boost this week was Rubio, who won the endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley and promptly hit the campaign trail with her.
Rubio hopes to bounce back from a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, after he gave what was widely regarded as a disastrous debate performance. In addition to Haley’s support, he has the support of prominent South Carolina politicians U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy. Former state party Chairman Katon Dawson called them “three superstars who are trusted.”
After South Carolina and the Feb. 27 Nevada GOP caucuses, candidates face a March 1 Super Tuesday marathon of primaries, when a full quarter of GOP convention delegates will be awarded. In several of those states, a candidate has to crack a 20 percent threshold to win any delegates.
A splintered field of establishment candidates could make it hard for any one to reach that number.
Though Bush supporters were disappointed by Haley’s decision to endorse Rubio, many said they still believe he can do well. No candidate has had more firepower.
Citing figures from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political ads, Bloomberg reported that the super PAC backing Bush has spent more than $11.6 million, almost half of everything spent in the Palmetto State.
“I think he’s picking up some (support) across the state,” said Boy Royall, a longtime Bush family supporter. “He’s got a good ground game.”
But other supporters are not as optimistic.
Dr. Eddie Floyd, who has hosted fundraisers at his Florence home for Bush’s father and brother, said he can’t understand why Trump and Cruz are leading his candidate in the polls.
“It’s just perplexed me,” he said. “Jeb Bush is the most qualified candidate. And in my heart I think he would make the best president.”
It wasn’t that long ago that establishment candidates routinely won the South Carolina primary. That changed in 2012 when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won, before eventually losing the nomination to Mitt Romney.
In hindsight, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said Gingrich was the canary in the coal mine of populist discontent.
After Saturday, he said, Bush may face the big decision: to stay in the race or not.
“He’s got enough money,” Huffmon said. “The question is, what would it do to the party? It would continue to split the establishment vote.”
Jamie Self of The (Columbia) State contributed.