US Election 2016: Donald Trump says he can act as presidential as any other US leader

The tycoon is romping to victory almost unchallenged with a campaign short on substance and long on bravado. David Usborne reports from Charleston, South Carolina

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The Independent US

There were two possibly consoling, if competing, messages for the quivering Republican Party from Donald Trump, the presidential contender who is threatening to scramble every rule it has ever lived by if not destroy it outright.

While pressing claims that he, already, knew how to be presidential, Mr Trump conceded the race for the Republican nomination was far from over after emerging victorious in South Carolina. 

Combining grandiosity with humility is fine for Mr Trump considering where he finds himself. Which of those statements deserve the greater scepticism is hard to say. He romped to victory in the Republican primary on Saturday after calling his rivals liars and Pope Francis “disgraceful” for attacking his planned “Great Wall” along the US-Mexico border and questioning his Christianity.

That Mr Trump, the property mogul, has some chameleon in him we already knew. In interviews, he tones the rally recklessness down a notch. “I think I’ll be very presidential at the appropriate time. Right now, I’m fighting for my life,” he told Fox News, adding that he can, “act as presidential as anybody that’s ever been president other than the great Abraham Lincoln”. That was the Trump brand of humility.

Lowering expectations in a race is a politician’s game Mr Trump has learnt even as he presents himself as the anti-politician. “Certainly I can be stopped,” he asserted in the same interview. “I’m dealing with very talented people.” Either one of Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz, who were barely separated in second and third places in South Carolina, could still fly by him, he went on.

But time is running out for his rivals and for party elders who once assumed that an implosion of some catastrophic kind would bring down airship Trump. Republicans in Nevada will hold nominating caucuses tomorrow and there is little to indicate that “the Donald”, who has his own very large hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, will not prevail easily.

In a week it’s Super Tuesday. Twelve states vote and everyone’s chips will be on the table. If Mr Trump runs them that day, when the weakness of his campaign’s ground game will matter less and his mastery of media communication will count for more, then perhaps no one will be able to slow his march to the party convention in July to accept his crown. 

Some party operatives are frustrated the other candidates haven’t striven harder to unpick Mr Trump, who is as short on policy substance as he is long on bravado. Of the $215m that all the super-PACs and other outside groups have spent so far, only $9m has been used against Mr Trump.

Jeb Bush tried to land his own punches, but, acknowledging his feeble numbers to date, he dropped out on Saturday. No one had been more vicious about him on the trail than Mr Trump, who was swift to deny all responsibility for his demise. “Jeb fought very hard,” he said. “It wasn’t his time. That’s all.”

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Donald Trump has said he will be ‘very presidential at the appropriate time’

The urgency of toppling Mr Trump is perhaps most acute for Senator Cruz, whose own state, Texas, is in play on Super Tuesday. Holding off Mr Trump there is obligatory for him. Mr Cruz, who won in Iowa and sells himself as the only true conservative, evinced confidence. His plan “from day one was to do well in the first four states and consolidate conservatives to go forward to Super Tuesday,” he said. “We’re positioned ideally to do exactly that.” 

But his path forward is not easy. His base is born-again evangelicals yet Mr Trump won more of them in South Carolina than he did. 

Some lustre belongs for now to Mr Rubio, who just squeaked into second on Saturday and now stands to benefit the most from former supporters of Mr Bush. Though many of his positions are also firmly conservative, whether opposing abortion even in cases of incest and rape or lambasting the thaw with Cuba, he is now seeking to be the favoured establishment alternative to Messrs Trump and Cruz, even though the Ohio Governor John Kasich, who came sixth, has said he will not be dropping out.

He had already moved his sights on to Mr Trump as the Republican circus headed to Nevada. “If you’re running to be president, you can’t just tell people you’re going to make America great again,” he said. But he has yet actually to win a state. That might not happen until 15 March when Florida votes. But Florida for him is as Texas is for Mr Cruz. If Mr Trump tops him there, he will also be on the skewer.

The party faces another possible calamity – that at its July convention Mr Trump will hold the most delegates but too few to claim the nomination, or that the rest of the party rises up in rebellion, triggering a damaging “brokered convention” either to embrace or scorn him. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the party, did not rule it out. “We will be prepared if that happens,” he told ABC News, “but I don’t think that’s going to be the case”.

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