Republican Donald Trump rolled to victory in South Carolina’s presidential primary Saturday, cementing his status as the man to beat for the GOP nomination.
It was Trump’s second straight primary victory. No Republican has won both New Hampshire and South Carolina and failed to win the nomination.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida narrowly beat Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for second. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who barely edged Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired surgeon Ben Carson for fourth place, officially ended his campaign.
Trump, speaking to 2,000 cheering supporters at the Spartanburg Marriott, congratulated his rivals, but said, “We go back to war tomorrow.”
He ridiculed TV pundits who said other candidates dropping out would help surviving candidates trying to stop him.
“I think we’re going to do very well,” Trump said. He complimented Rubio and Cruz, but didn’t mention Bush, who earlier had ended his campaign. Running for president, Trump said, is “nasty, mean, it’s vicious, it’s beautiful.”
“Let’s put this thing away and let’s make America great again,” he said.
Trump won all but two of the state’s 46 counties, losing to Rubio in Richland and Charleston counties.
The New York billionaire won after sparring with rivals, a former Republican president and even the pope. The heated campaign made South Carolina the focus of presidential politics. Democrats in the state vote Saturday.
“He’s definitely going all the way to the White House,” said Gale Whiteford, 45, who runs a restaurant with her husband in Laurens, S.C. “He says exactly what he’s thinking. And he’s a tough man and a smart man. That’s what this country needs.”
Republicans head next to Nevada for Tuesday’s GOP caucuses. Then the race shifts into overdrive with 14 “Super Tuesday” contests on March 1 and four more later that week.
By the time North Carolina – along with Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri – votes March 15, the field will be significantly smaller.
The GOP primary turned into a cage match in South Carolina, starting with a testy Feb. 13 debate in Greenville, S.C., where Trump and Rubio called Cruz a liar and Trump told Bush that 9/11 happened “during your brother’s reign.”
In a state notorious for dirty tricks, the attacks continued into election day.
Robocalls from a pro-Cruz super PAC bashed Trump for supporting a compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds in Columbia. “Trump talks about our flag like it’s a social disease,” a narrator said.
Rubio’s campaign, meanwhile, accused Cruz supporters of misleading voters. “Sen. Cruz has settled on a strategy to steal elections through rumors and lies,” senior adviser Joe Pounder said.
Last week Rubio won the sought-after endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley. Like U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy, she campaigned at his side.
They all took the stage with him in Columbia, where he declared the contest had become “a three-person race”.
“Tonight here in South Carolina, the message is pretty clear,” Rubio told supporters. “The country is ready for a new generation of conservatives to lead us into the 21st century.”
It was a more somber mood at Bush’s Columbia headquarters. The crowd was silent as he read from a prepared statement, saying he had run a race while “staying true to what I believe.”
Without mentioning other candidates, he seemingly referred to Trump, saying that he had put forth a vision for the country “that includes all because our country deserves a president for everyone.
“The presidency is bigger than any one person,” he said. “It is certainly bigger than any candidate.”
Later, Cruz trumpeted his showing despite “the entirety of the political establishment coming together against us.”
The winner of the Iowa caucuses said, “We are the only campaign that can beat – and has beaten – Donald Trump.”
Trump ‘keeps it real’
But Trump was clearly the candidate many voters wanted.
“For the last 25 years, I’ve heard, ‘Let’s throw the bums out,’ ” said Tim Malony, 59, a business owner who voted for Trump. “I’m ready to throw the bums out.”
Tammy Everette and Mandy Canupp, both of Spartanburg County, came to the Marriott after voting for Trump.
Everette, a 32-year-old preschool teacher, said unlike many politicians, Trump is in the race – and spending his own money – to help repair America.
“He doesn’t need the fame and fortune of being president,” Everette said. “He’s spending his own money and time to try to make America great again.”
Canupp, 48, who owns her own business, said Trump “keeps it real. I like real people.”
In Rock Hill, Debbie Stuart, 62, sported a “Pray for our Country” button when she cast her ballot for Cruz “because he stands on his values.”
Like an estimated 65 percent of GOP primary voters, Stuart is a self-described evangelical. She said Trump – who also has appealed for the religious vote – is not a regular church-goer.
“You’re going to be an evangelical, you need to go to church,” she said.
Kevin Miller, 39, voted for Rubio with the fall campaign in mind.
“I think he has what it takes to be acceptable to a broad electorate,” said the Rock Hill orthodontist. “He’s the best candidate to go the distance.”
Curtis Adams, a Rock Hill jeweler, called Trump the “Republican version of Obama.” He thought the best way to stop Trump was to narrow the field. He hoped his vote for Rubio would drive Bush and Kasich from the race. By around 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Bush had done just that.
Lona Gilmore, a retired counselor from Rock Hill, voted for Trump because he “can make things happen.”
“I’m so mad at the Republican Party because they can’t do anything,” she said. “I don’t want a politician.”
Staff writer Michael Gordon and Leslie Clark and William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.
S.C. GOP primary results
99 percent of precincts reporting