The once sprawling 2016 GOP field has been whittled down to a handful of serious contenders, and those candidates will face perhaps the most consequential debate of the contest to date on Saturday.
In less than two weeks, the presidential primary contest has claimed five Republicans, leaving the survivors desperate to kill off their rivals. The smaller contest has shoved the candidates into two pronounced groupings, and for each the stakes could not be higher as South Carolina voters prep to claim more casualties on Feb. 20.
The first tier will pit re-established front-runner Donald Trump and his masterful media manipulation against the fine tuned, spectacular organization and evangelical appeal of Sen. Ted Cruz. The pair clashed violently in the lead up to the Iowa caucus, but entered into a seven-day detente in the days before the New Hampshire primary. But the short-lived Pax Trumpana was blown apart just as the Granite State polls closed.
Wasting no time in setting course for a South Carolina collision, Cruz released an ad mocking Trump as a fake Republican. “We wouldn’t tolerate these values in our children,” a tweet accompanying the ad from the official Cruz campaign account read Tuesday night, “Why would we want them in our president?” Simultaneously an ad from Trump calling Cruz the “worst kind of Washington insider” hit the airwaves in South Carolina homes.
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The stage is set for the two to blast broadsides at each other Saturday evening. With the three Establishment lane candidates mired in their own grouping and trailing the two leading outsiders, Trump and Cruz can be expected to train their attention almost solely on each other. Cruz has long planned to seize the mantle of GOP front-runner with a commanding day of victories in the March 1 Super Tuesday contest, home to the 2016 minted “SEC Primary.”
Cruz has organized heavily in the eight southern, more evangelical, states that constitute the so-called SEC element of the new Super Tuesday. The Texas senator sees Trump’s big margin win in New Hampshire and reestablished momentum as a potentially lethal threat to his Super Tuesday prospects. Trump, on the other hand, knows Cruz could upset him on March 1, and he will want Cruz as weakened as possible by the South Carolina result. Trump victories over Cruz on Super Tuesday, or even a split day, could be enough to kill off Cruz as a threat.
The debate in Greenville, S.C., will be the one shot each has to scuttle the other in an onstage clash before the South Carolina outcome sets expectations and momentum headed into Super Tuesday.
For any of the remaining Establishment candidates – Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich — to maintain any real hope of seriously challenging the victor of the Trump-Cruz conflict, they must knock out the others in South Carolina. Bush, the heir to a family history of particularly brutish campaign tactics in the state, has come out of the gate strongest.
“(Governor) Kasich has consistently supported gutting the military and has no viable path in the Palmetto State,” read an internal campaign memo from the Bush campaign leaked to Politico.
“Senator Rubio has lost momentum and has been exposed as completely unprepared to be president,” the memo also states, a line of attack already deployed in ads and stump speeches from Bush.
The high stakes and ramped-up urgency among the candidates has led to a record-shattering amount of campaign ad spending. The contenders have already spent $24 million on ads in South Carolina according to a Wednesday Bloomberg report, more than three times the total amount spent on campaign ads in the state in 2012. The frantic necessity among the Establishment-lane candidates to knock each other out of the way could well bring the Bush vs. Rubio attacks to a previously unseen level of vitriol.
The critical importance of this on-stage fight will likely be the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the GOP contest, with each candidate having an urgent interest in permanently wounding his chief rivals.