WASHINGTON — South Carolinians place their stamp on the chaotic Republican presidential campaign Saturday while Nevadans put Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to their first test before an ethnically varied electorate in the Democratic contest.
On the Republican side, the presidential hopes of Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and John Kasich may hang in the balance.
The campaign as the South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses unfold:
REPUBLICANS IN SOUTH CAROLINA
If there’s anything orderly about the GOP slugfest, it’s the consistency of preference polls in South Carolina. They suggest Donald Trump is the man to beat, Ted Cruz hovers in second with Marco Rubio perhaps in striking distance, and Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson are scrambling behind them.
Trump took New Hampshire after Cruz won Iowa. The New York billionaire’s status as front-runner will be ever stronger if he scores a big victory Saturday.
Nothing else in the GOP race is orderly.
DEMOCRATS IN NEVADA
The caucuses will be an early tie-breaker: Clinton squeaked to victory in Iowa and Sanders routed her in New Hampshire.
Considered the favorite for the nomination since the start, Clinton has struggled to achieve a breakout while her socialist rival has lapped up excitement and made headway at every turn.
After contests in mostly white states, Nevada offers a population that is about one-quarter Hispanic and 9 percent black. Diversity will accelerate in weeks ahead for Democrats in South Carolina and in states that follow – a clear advantage for Clinton but one that Sanders has worked assiduously to counter.
Polls point to a close finish in Nevada, with Sanders narrowing what was once a distinct edge for his rival. But because the state’s a caucus and not a primary, those polls aren’t very reliable.
The pope, Duck Dynasty, Howard Stern from 2002: You just never know what’s coming next to a Republican presidential campaign gripped by Trumpism.
The Democratic race is staid by comparison, though enlivened by Sanders’ contention this week that he was once an honorary woman.
Pope vs. Trump: Pope Francis celebrated a huge Mass at the Mexican border that Trump wants to seal with a fortress-like wall, then suggested Trump’s hard line on illegal immigration makes him “not a Christian.” Wags called that smackdown a holy waterboarding.
A livid Trump said the pope had no business questioning his faith, then calmed down a bit to say he respects the pontiff – while observing, “He’s got an awfully big wall at the Vatican.”
Trump vs. Trump: After repeatedly boasting that he warned against the Iraq war before it started, Trump had to back down when BuzzFeed unearthed a 2002 interview on Stern’s radio show in which Trump said “I guess so” when asked if he supported the coming invasion.
Duck diplomacy: Cruz campaigned in Myrtle Beach on Friday with Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson and suggested a Cruz administration might make the bearded reality TV star ambassador to the U.N. Cruz appeared to be joking.
He was woman, hear him roar: Asked from an audience how a man can understand the problems of women, Sanders said he’s a feminist with a record of fighting for pay equity and more. He said feminist Gloria Steinem once named him an honorary woman in tribute to his fight for women’s equality.
The ever-present calculus of how a candidate performs against expectations may hang most heavily over Bush.
An early favorite in the race, long flush with cash that allies are spending on his behalf, Bush may need a third-place finish, if not better, to stay viable.
His South Carolina campaign had high and low points.
On the plus side: his strongest debate performance and a lively show of support from his brother, George W. Bush, in a state where people think fondly of the ex-president. On the down side, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio, a dispiriting turn for the ex-governor of Florida.
That endorsement is an obvious boost for Rubio, a Florida senator, but it raises expectations for him, too. He’s yet to do better than a strong third in Iowa. Anything less than that Saturday would deepen questions about his potential to grow.
HOW THEY VOTE
Polls open at 7 a.m. EST in South Carolina and close at 7 p.m.
Evangelicals and tea party conservatives are important constituencies for Republicans. The state also has many military families and, like Nevada, many retirees.
Sen. John McCain won the 2008 South Carolina primary on his way to the Republican nomination. Newt Gingrich won the primary in 2012, when Mitt Romney became the nominee.
The Nevada caucuses open their doors starting at 2 p.m. EST and each one should take a few hours.
Hispanic and black voters, as well as union members, are important for Democrats.
Nevadans backed Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008 on his way to the presidency.