GOP leaders increasingly see South Carolina as their last best chance to stop Donald Trump's populist political juggernaut.
On Wednesday, influential South Carolina Republican Katon Dawson issued a plea for former President George W. Bush to step into the ring in the Palmetto State's Feb. 20 primary. Bush is quite popular among South Carolina Republicans, and Dawson called his involvement a potential "game changer."
"If [George W. Bush] engages, it will matter for his brother [Jeb Bush], but really, it will matter for the entire team," Dawson told Bloomberg News.
The Palmetto State appears uniquely positioned this cycle. While it follows Iowa and New Hampshire on the primary calendar, but is already drawing intense attention from candidates and pundits alike.
The pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise PAC recently announced a $4 million TV ad buy in South Carolina.
On Tuesday, Rubio's Conservative Solutions PAC unveiled its first TV ad there, touting the Florida senator's strong support for the U.S. military. The dollar value of that ad buy was not announced.
Trump is not expected to carry socially conservative Iowa. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is seen as the prohibitive favorite there.
New Hampshire, however, is a quite different story. Trump appears dominant there, with roughly twice the poll numbers of his nearest competitor, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Assuming Cruz and Trump split the first two contests, South Carolina would occupy the key strategic spot on the electoral calendar for 2016. As the last major primary before the March 1 "SEC primaries," it will turbocharge the campaign of whichever candidate wins.
The March 1 contests held 10 days after South Carolina involve 14 states, most of them in the South. They comprise over 40 percent of the 1,236 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination.
"Whoever wins South Carolina," says longtime conservative pollster Matt Towery, "is going to be viewed as the presumptive leader in all these other SEC primaries. Those who want to stop Trump have to make South Carolina their ultimate point of demarcation. For Trump, South Carolina needs to be a Maginot line that he crosses easily, then slips into the SEC primaries and does well."
The bottom line: A win in South Carolina could give Trump a boost that could carry him all the way to the nomination. But a loss could damage his momentum just as the critical, multi-state primaries arrive.
"He might survive an expected defeat in Iowa if he wins in New Hampshire," The Daily Caller's Stewart Lawrence writes. "But a subsequent defeat in South Carolina, especially if his loss marked a second victory for say, Cruz or Rubio, might well be devastating."
Party leaders in South Carolina and Washington, D.C., are well aware of the strategic timing.
Towery, the conservative InsiderAdvantage pollster, says it's obvious the GOP establishment won't be doing Trump any favors.
"The establishment Republican Party -- most of whom I know well, and I'm not putting them down -- but they make their bread and butter out of controlling people, or at least being hired to help them package themselves.
"So far, Trump has basically thumbed his nose at all of them and doesn't need them," he adds. "So of course they're all going to band together -- because this is their last stand."
Trump's poll numbers have been surging since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. As the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses draw near, pundits no longer dismiss the possibility that Trump could ride a populist wave of voter frustration all the way to the nomination.
That suggests South Carolina could be the last major speed bump between Trump and the convention in Cleveland.
The RealClearPolitics poll average for South Carolina currently shows Trump with 33.7 percent, Cruz at 19.3 percent, Rubio at 12.7, and Ben Carson at 11.3 percent. Jeb Bush is in single digits at 7.3 percent.
Towery likes Trump's chances of replicating the iconoclastic path Gingrich followed in the Palmetto State in 2012. He predicts Trump's rivals will try to find a wedge issue involving national security or defense. That could peel votes from South Carolina's strong contingent of military voters.
Trump's poll numbers, and his drawing power at South Carolina rallies, have been thoroughly impressive. But may not find many friends in South Carolina political circles.
In the fifth GOP debate in Las Vegas, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the favorite son who suspended his presidential campaign, actually apologized for Trump's stance on Muslim immigration. "I am sorry," Graham declared, "he does not represent us."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has become an oft-mentioned vice presidential prospect, called Trump's proposal "absolutely un-American" and blasted him as "an embarrassment" to the GOP.
Matt Moore, the current chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, was equally critical, tweeting: "As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump's bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine."
Influential former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who now runs the Heritage Foundation, used a more moderate tone. But even he told CNN that Trump's proposal to ban Muslims "is not who we are as Americans."
South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a tea party favorite whose profile has been elevated by the Benghazi hearings, recently endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio, the leading candidate currently occupying the race's establishment lane, has appointed several South Carolinians to top campaign positions.
The biggest endorsement still waiting in the wings may be that of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Scott has hosted several "Tim's Town Hall" meetings featuring GOP candidates. Although he has not yet signaled which candidate he will endorse, he appeared with Rubio at a Dec. 19 campaign rally in Anderson, S.C.
In some ways, South Carolina could prove to be a microcosm of the larger primary campaign. The test will be whether Trump's drawing power, combined with voters' intense frustration with the political status quo, will overpower traditional voting patterns.
South Carolinians have a strong history of supporting the GOP's leading establishment standard-bearer. In 1988, South Carolinian primary voters broke for George H.W. Bush. In 2000, they supported his son, George W. Bush.
That pattern appeared to change in 2012, however, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich scored an upset victory over eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
Towery, who has done extensive polling in South Carolina, describes it as "a prudent conservative state." But with the rise of the tea party in recent years, South Carolina's politics appear to be taking a more populist tilt. He says the party's establishment no longer exercises the tight control they once did. If so, that may provide all the maneuvering room that Trump needs to win.
Nationally, party leaders will have to tread softly in any attempt to influence the South Carolina outcome. Trump has pledged not to mount a third-party campaign -- which would likely doom the party's chances of defeating Hillary Clinton in November -- but only if he feels that he's being treated fairly.
Says Towery: "To everyone who says to me ‘Donald Trump isn't a smart man,' I answer that as soon as they make their first billion dollars, I'll listen to what they say. When they get to $5 billion, I'll really listen.
"He's brilliant, and he's proved it by the way he's run his campaign."
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