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Jumbled Republican field seeks clarity in South Carolina

| Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, 9:27 p.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hoping for survival in the South, a muddled field of Republican presidential contenders descended Wednesday on South Carolina, no closer to deciphering who can stand between Donald Trump and their party's nomination.

Not me, Carly Fiorina announced, dropping out of the campaign. A Chris Christie spokeswoman said his race is over, too. But a sizeable field remains.

To the dismay of party leaders, all signs point to a drawn-out battle for delegates after Trump's resounding victory in New Hampshire. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, under immense pressure to prove himself after a devastating fifth-place finish, was looking for a fight that could last for months or even spill into the first contested GOP national convention since 1976.

“We very easily could be looking at May — or the convention,” Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan said.

If Trump had Republicans on edge, Democrats were feeling no less queasy.

Rejected in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton sought redemption in Nevada, where a more diverse group of voters awaited her and Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, a Vermont senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist, raised $5 million-plus in less than a day after his New Hampshire triumph. The contributions came mostly in small-dollar amounts, his campaign said, illustrating the resources he'll have to fight Clinton to a bitter end.

Both Clinton and Sanders — the first Jew to win a presidential primary — worked to undercut each other among African Americans and Hispanics with less than two weeks until the Democratic contests in Nevada and South Carolina.

Sanders met for breakfast in Harlem with the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist. Clinton, meanwhile, announced plans to campaign with the mother of Sandra Bland, whose death while in police custody became a symbol of racial tensions. And Clinton's campaign deployed South Carolina state Rep. Todd Rutherford to vouch for her support for minorities.

“Secretary Clinton has been involved in South Carolina for the last 40 years,” Rutherford said. “Bernie Sanders has talked about these issues for the last 40 days.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand and victor in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, returned to the center of the fracas after largely sitting out New Hampshire. He drew contrasts with Trump as he told a crowd of 500 in Myrtle Beach that Texans and South Carolinians are more alike than not.

“We love God; we're gun owners, military veterans and we're fed up with what's happening in Washington,” Cruz said.

Almost all the Republicans have spent months building complex campaigns and blanketing airwaves in South Carolina, which heralds the start of the GOP campaign's foray into the South. After that primary on Feb. 20, seven Southern states including Georgia and Virginia will anchor the Super Tuesday primaries March 1, with oodles of delegates at stake.

The state, with its array of conservative GOP voters, will test Trump and the others in new ways. Having courted social conservatives in Iowa and moderates in New Hampshire, the candidates face an electorate infused with evangelical, pro-business and military-minded flavors.

Rubio's campaign has looked forward to the state. Yet his path grew far trickier after the letdown in New Hampshire, which terminated talk of Republican leaders quickly uniting behind him as the strongest alternative to “outsiders” Trump and Cruz.

His campaign's suggestion that the race could end with a contested convention seemed to signal to mainstream Republicans that the party would be ill-served by allowing the Trump phenomenon to last much longer. GOP officials have had early discussions about such a July scenario, which could be triggered if no candidate secures a majority of delegates by convention time.

For Gov. John Kasich, whose second-place showing was New Hampshire's primary stunner, the task was to convert newfound interest into support in a state ideologically distant from his native Ohio. With a minimal South Carolina operation compared to his rivals, Kasich must work quickly.

Seeking votes at a local business in Charleston, Kasich worked to burnish his reputation as a results-oriented leader.

“If you don't go to the gym, you get flabby,” Kasich said. “And if the country doesn't solve its problems, it gets flabby.”

Heading into the final two-week sprint, Trump was leading in South Carolina among all demographic groups, an NBC/Marist/Wall Street Journal poll showed, with Cruz and Rubio a distant second and third. Already, more than $32 million has been spent on TV ads here, according to CMAG/Kantar Media data — much of it by Right to Rise, the PAC backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Though he placed fourth on Tuesday, Bush was hoping that Rubio's slump would forestall his own ouster from the race. After a rally in Bluffton, he said voters in New Hampshire “pushed the pause button” on anointing any candidate — and turned to his brother, George W. Bush, for help. His campaign debuted a new ad featuring the former president, who plans to campaign in the Palmetto State.

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