Donald Trump, the billionaire bulldog with no ties to Washington and barely to his own party, thundered to a wide victory in the crucial South Carolina Republican primary, further confounding those who thought his braggadocio – not to mention tangles with the Pope – would undo him.
With the last results coming in, Mr Trump appeared to have captured roughly a third of the vote, a good ten points ahead of his nearest rivals. There was a brawl going on for second place between senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, with the former seemingly inching ahead.
Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents who sagged into single digits, announced he was ending his candidacy, one that had started with great promise and the benefit of over $100 million in outside financing. It spelled the likely end of the Bush dynasty’s hold on the Republican establishment.
On the other side of the country in Nevada, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton achieved a narrow, but critically important, victory over Senator Bernie Sanders in caucus voting, offering some reassurance to her supporters and donors that she has found a way to turn back his surprisingly potent challenge. While Mr Sanders made up great ground to come within five points of her, his campaign needed a win there.
The continuing rise of Mr Trump may be pushing Democrats to resist the lure of Mr Sanders and stick with Ms Clinton with the thought if it comes to stopping him actually taking residence in the White House she may in the end be better equipped to do it than a democratic socialist from Vermont.
“This is your campaign,” she told her supporters in Las Vegas. “It is - it is a campaign to break down every barrier that holds you back. We’re going to build ladders of opportunity in their place, so every American can go as far as your hard work can take you.” She and Mr Sander meet next in the Democratic primary in South Carolina next Saturday.
Back in South Carolina, it was unquestionably Mr Trump’s night. “When you win it’s beautiful,” Mr Trump told his supporters repeating his pledge to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and make Mexico paid for it. He notably missed the opportunity to pay tribute to Mr Bush for his campaign. But behaving badly doesn’t seem to harm him.
Some in the party are wondering whether his grab for the party nomination can now be thwarted or if he has become unstoppable. History is on Mr Trump’s side: no Republican who has won both New Hampshire and South Carolina did not go on to win the nomination.
With most of the results in, Mr Trump stood at 32.6 per cent while Mr Cruz and Mr Rubio had 22.4 per cent and 22.2 per cent. The radically conservative Mr Cruz may face a problem longer term. This was a state with a very large block of evangelicals which are his base - a full three quarters of voters described themselves as born-again evangelicals in exit polling – and yet the gap with Mr Trump was wide.
Mr Rubio, the Florida Senator, who had fared poorly in New Hampshire, had arguably more reason to celebrate. He had clearly been boosted by a big endorsement from the popular Governor of the state, Nikki Haley. He has attempted to distinguish himself as the candidate of a new generation of Republicans, stressing the new century and his youth.
Anger meanwhile has clearly been a driver of the Trump train. Just over half of the Republican voters said they felt betrayed by their own party leaders, a stunning number. Speculation that the mogul had gone too far at times, attacking former President George W Bush over the Iraq War, and then calling Pope Francis “disgraceful” after he called his Christianity into question was not borne out.
But he has also benefited from the crowded and fractured field beneath him, in particular with Mr Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich and – until last night - Mr Bush all battling to emerge as the establishment alternative to him and Mr Cruz and thus dividing the anti-Trump forces.
However, his ability to replicate tonight’s win in the states around the corner, including Nevada on Tuesday and 12 states voting on so-called Super Tuesday one week later will become trickier if the field continues to narrower.
“After tonight this has become a three-person race and we will win the nomination,” Mr Rubio declared as the last results came in, disregarding Mr Kasich and also Dr Ben Carson who apparently was remaining in the race in spite of placing last in South Carolina. “This country is ready for a new generation of conservatives to lead it into the 21st Century,” Mr Rubio went on.
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