Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio are locked in a high-stakes political chess match in South Carolina, strategically moving money and other campaign resources around in a bid to pull ahead in the Republican primary race — or at least keep their campaigns afloat.
The maneuvering comes as some Republican leaders fear Donald Trump or Ted Cruz will begin piling up the delegates needed to secure the nomination before one of the more traditional candidates can concentrate the support of voters turned off by the brash billionaire and fiery Texas senator. Establishment Republicans believe either of those two could jeopardize the party’s chances of winning in November’s general election.
"We do need to get the field down to Trump, Cruz and somebody," said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee heavyweight from Mississippi. "New Hampshire tried, but it’s clear as mud."
Indeed, the only thing that is clear heading into Saturday’s South Carolina primary appears to be Trump’s grip on the lead. Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, is also in the mix for a strong finish.
But the more mainstream lane populated by Bush, Kasich and Rubio is more jumbled. Bush’s campaign now sees an opening to capitalize on Rubio’s fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, while Kasich’s strong second-place showing there has given him reason to keep going. Rubio’s team, meanwhile, is quietly confident that South Carolina will prove to be a comeback story for the Florida senator.
Kasich’s finish in New Hampshire has scrambled what might have been a do-or-die contest between Bush and Rubio here. After initially viewing the first-in-the-South primary as too much of a long-shot for a moderate Midwesterner, Kasich abruptly changed his schedule to campaign in South Carolina almost every day.
The newly confident Ohio governor also recently put a small batch of ads on television in South Carolina — something he hadn’t planned until after his New Hampshire success.
"Exceeding expectations is why we’re there," Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf said.
For Kasich, exceeding expectations here would be to finish ahead of Bush, the former Florida governor. Bush has deep family ties to South Carolina — his father and brother each won two primaries here — and a poor showing Saturday could leave him without a compelling rationale to go on.
Right to Rise USA, the heavily funded super PAC backing Bush, has reduced its radio and television ad spending by nearly $3 million across seven states that vote in the coming weeks, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) data. The cuts impact some states that vote on Super Tuesday, the delegate-rich March 1 bonanza.
The super PAC made the biggest change in Texas, where it cut more than $1 million in ads it had planned through the March 1 primary. The group also cut back in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma — all Super Tuesday states — as well as Michigan and Idaho.
Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsay cast the moves as a "delay" in spending that "will give us the opportunity to prioritize following South Carolina."
Rubio is also trimming his ad spending, though his cuts come in South Carolina. According to the CMAG data, Rubio’s campaign has scaled back its remaining paid media in the state by more than half. However, his allied super PAC appears to be picking up the slack.
Rubio aides said the moves were aimed at bringing the campaign’s ad spending down to the level of its competitors in South Carolina, not a sign of financial troubles or an indication that he was lowering expectations.
The winner here has emerged as the nominee in each presidential cycle from 1980 to 2008. But those typically were two-man contests. This time the large number of candidates means there’s no clean divide on ideology, personality or anything else.
Even before South Carolina votes, Republican leaders — and even some voters — say that candidates who aren’t competitive need to swallow their pride and let go of their presidential ambitions.
"I’m just hoping through this election — or maybe the next one — we whittle it down a little to two or three really good candidates," said Bill Hann, a 69-year-old from Daniel Island who is still deciding between Rubio, Kasich and Bush. "Just too many voices right now."
Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chairman who remains unaligned, put it more bluntly. He said that if a candidate finishes in the single digits Saturday, "you ought to quit."
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