By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON (AP) – Saturday will help shape the framework of the presidential race: Look for new clues in South Carolina's Republican primary about Donald Trump's appeal – and perhaps a narrowing of the GOP field. Nevada's Democratic caucuses, meanwhile, will serve as a first test of how Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders play before a more diverse electorate after the mostly white contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. What to watch:
First, direct your attention to Nevada, where Democratic caucuses will render a Clinton vs. Sanders verdict by late afternoon EST. Once that's settled, look to see how South Carolina sorts the muddled Republican race, where it's long been Trump and some other guys. Polls close at 7 p.m. EST. Separate from the voting, Saturday also may well offer new intel about which candidates have the financial foundation to persevere as the primary and caucus calendar gets increasingly crowded. The latest candidate financial reports are due by midnight, but some will probably trickle in earlier.
TEST IN THE WEST
Locked in a surprisingly tough fight, Clinton and Sanders are looking to Nevada, the first state with a sizable minority population, to send strong signals about the way forward. Clinton, once thought to be the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, wants a heaping helping of reassurance from Nevada, whose diversity is thought to work to her advantage. But Sanders, who notched a huge win in New Hampshire after drawing nearly even with Clinton in Iowa, has momentum on his side and very much wants a strong showing in Nevada to prove his success this far was no fluke. Both sides are out to prove electability come November. Exit polls will show whether Clinton got the union support she energetically courted, and who attracted the support of minority voters.
The billionaire's been consistently out front in South Carolina. (Caveat: Don't forget his surprise second-place finish in Iowa, where he'd been ahead in polls.) A strong Trump victory in South Carolina would feed into the larger question attached to his combative candidacy: Are Republicans really willing to hand Trump the nomination? As Trump put it to his supporters on primary eve: “We have to make sure we get a big mandate.”
Ted Cruz used a strong ground game to outfox Trump in Iowa and is pinning his South Carolina hopes on more organizational mojo, dispatching 10,000 volunteers to turn out his supporters. But that's a harder thing to pull off in a statewide primary than in a caucus state. Exit polls will show how Cruz does with the state's large evangelical population, a key part of his coalition. It will be telling to see how much support from religious conservatives Trump can siphon. Cruz, in turn, seemed to be trying to poach Trump's message when he told supporters that if he's elected, the nation will be “winning so much, we'll get tired of winning.”
Marco Rubio has been on the recovery track after a disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. He scored a real coup in winning the endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. His job on Saturday: Emerge as the go-to candidate for mainstream Republicans, nudging aside Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
BUSH'S LAST STAND?
The presidential race has been one long, tough slog for Bush, and he's desperate to find some Southern comfort in South Carolina. After finishing sixth in Iowa's leadoff caucuses and fourth in New Hampshire, Bush is essentially asking South Carolina voters to give him a reason to press on. His plan to emerge as the establishment alternative to Trump and Cruz has been thwarted thus far by the likes of Rubio, Kasich and others. He was stung by Haley's endorsement of Rubio, and even his own supporters shared some tough sentiments over the past week. “I don't think your message is resonating,” one man told Bush at his own town-hall event. Without some validation from South Carolina voters, Bush will have a hard time attracting the cash he needs to compete in Nevada next week and then in the Super Tuesday round of voting in 12 states and America Samoa on March 1.
The Ohio governor's surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire breathed new life into his struggling candidacy. But now he needs to demonstrate in South Carolina that he's got staying power. At least he's got a sense of humor about it: He told supporters he's out to beat expectations that he can fit all his voters in a Volkswagen. “Clearly, we're going to do better than that – we may be able to put them in a van,” he said.
Saturday's voting won't be the only action in the presidential race: Candidates have to file reports detailing their fundraising for the month of January. The outside groups known as super PACs that have been bankrolling various presidential efforts will be reporting in, too. These reports may well start trickling out Saturday afternoon, and should provide important clues about which candidates have the resources necessary to compete as the campaign spreads out to the two dozen states that vote by March 15.
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