COLUMBIA, S.C. — With New Hampshire now in the books, the leading Republican candidates turned their sights overnight Tuesday to South Carolina, where an unsettled nominating race moves to a state known for voter volatility and sometimes unsavory politics.
Sen. Ted Cruz is resuming his effort to sew up the Christian right, the key to his victory in Iowa, but on a playing field where evangelical voters are more diverse. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush are scrambling for an edge in a state whose large military presence means the commander-in-chief test will be a big factor.
South Carolina prides itself on picking presidents. With the exception of 2012, every winner here since Ronald Reagan went on to claim the nomination. This time Bush and Rubio are hoping to notch their first victories of the contest.
While Donald Trump has led in every poll of the state since July, Bush has invested substantial resources here. His aides say 1,000 volunteers have knocked on doors at more than 50,000 homes. His brother, former President George W. Bush, who is expected to campaign alongside him here, appeared in an ad in South Carolina during the Super Bowl, declaring, “Jeb Bush is a leader who will keep our country safe.’’
“The commander-in-chief question is going to be a big one,’’ said Jim Dyke, a senior adviser to Bush here. “If you look at exit polls from 2008 and 2012, in both elections about 25 percent identified as active military or had served in the military.’’
Cruz, who won Iowa in large part because of a superior ground game that activated evangelical voters, has replicated the formula in South Carolina. The Cruz campaign says 9,800 volunteers are part of its grass-roots effort. It has “strike force’’ camps in Greenville for out-of-state troops and has enlisted 300 pastors in all 46 South Carolina counties.
But the evangelical vote in this state is less monolithic than in Iowa.
“There’s lots of diversity among evangelicals,’’ said Oren Smith, president of the socially conservative Palmetto Family Alliance, adding that his board includes supporters of Bush, Cruz, Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. He said all four candidates are expected at a forum he is co-hosting Friday at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville.
After the voting in New Hampshire, the parties’ itineraries diverge over the next 2 1/2 weeks. Democrats vote here Feb. 27, one week after their Nevada caucuses. Republicans are taking a snowbird express from New Hampshire to South Carolina, where the primary is Feb. 20.
The state’s primary has a history of dirty tricks by shadowy operatives. In 2000, a bogus telephone poll suggested John McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock, and in 2007 voters received a Christmas card suggesting Mitt Romney, a Mormon, supported polygamy. The Post and Courier of Charleston has even introduced a Web app for readers to report campaign shenanigans.
Trump is quite likely to face a kind of scrutiny here he has so far avoided: the only Republican candidate who does not favor increased military spending, he must woo a state with eight bases and 58,000 military retirees. His Vietnam War draft deferments may also be an issue.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ idealistic message that inspired young voters in the first two nominating contests is facing a sharp test in a state where Democrats are more moderate and demographically diverse.
Even though Democrats here vote later, that doesn’t mean the candidates will be scarce in coming days, in person or on the airwaves: Hillary Clinton will campaign here Friday, and her campaign has a new ad aimed at black voters that decries the criminal justice system. Sanders has legions of volunteers in the state.
The crowded Republican field means South Carolina will most likely be just a chapter in a drawn-out primary fight, rather than settling things.
“Our position is, we want a two-person race with Rubio or Trump,’’ said Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Cruz, speaking before the New Hampshire returns were in. “If it’s a three-person race, South Carolina becomes really, really competitive.’’
Many assumptions just a day or two old already seem outdated. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Bush supporter, said a few days ago that the former Florida governor needed a tie or a win over Rubio in New Hampshire to remain viable. But Bush is ignoring that appraisal.
Trump was endorsed by South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster, at a rally last month in tiny Gilbert, where the billionaire developer’s ability to draw 1,000 people was another sign of his appeal. A convincing victory for him here could coax other establishment Republicans to his side, if the main alternative seems to be Cruz.
Among Democrats, after Clinton’s struggles in two states whose contests were dominated by liberal, overwhelmingly white voters, South Carolina will test the theory that the South is her firewall. More than half the state’s Democratic primary electorate is African-American. Clinton, who promises to build on President Barack Obama’s record, has a commanding lead here.
“The party starts to look more like the Democratic Party nationally when you leave Iowa and New Hampshire,’’ said Bakari Sellers, a former state representative who supports Clinton. He said black voters would embrace her as a practical fighter for issues they care about, rather than rallying to Sanders’ idealism.
“What’s going to drive her through the South are African-American women,’’ he said of Clinton. “My mom and her friends are going to win this election.’’
Sanders, who held a rally in Rock Hill that attracted 3,000 people last year, is trying to make inroads with minority voters. State Rep. Justin T. Bamberg, an African-American who originally endorsed Clinton, switched support to Sanders last month, calling him “bold’’ and Clinton the “status quo.’’