COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA —
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made last-minute appeals to voters in South Carolina on Friday, while Republican front-runner Donald Trump picked up a key endorsement from an old rival.
Ex-Secretary of State Clinton is expected to easily win Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where she has for weeks had a dominant, double-digit lead in opinion polls, thanks in part to her popularity among the state’s African-American voters.
Sanders is hoping to make the contest as close as possible, but the Vermont senator appears to have largely given up on winning the state. In recent days, he has held rallies in other states where polls suggest he has a better chance.
Signs stand in front of Bernie Sanders' campaign headquarters in Columbia, S.C. Sanders has mostly planned events outside the state prior to the Democratic primary on Saturday. (B. Allen/VOA)
Clinton, who has a narrow delegate lead over Sanders after the first three nominating contests, continued her strategy Friday of focusing on her allegiance to President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
“I’m really proud to stand with President Obama, and I’m really proud to stand with the progress he’s made,” Clinton said at a rally in Kingstree. “I need your help, starting with this primary on Saturday."
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles as he stands with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie before a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, Feb. 26, 2016.
On the GOP side, Trump received a surprise endorsement Friday from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who just weeks ago dropped out of the presidential race himself.
“The single most important thing for the Republican Party is to nominate the person who gives us the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton,” Christie said at a news conference. “I can guarantee that the one person Hillary and [ex-President] Bill Clinton don’t want to see on that stage come next September is Donald Trump.”
The move, Trump’s highest-profile endorsement yet, was unexpected, especially since Christie in recent months repeatedly had portrayed the billionaire businessman as unhinged emotionally and unfit to be president.
The endorsement was timely for Trump, coming hours after a presidential debate where he was the target of repeated attacks by his main rivals, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Republican U.S. presidential candidates Marco Rubio (L) and Donald Trump speak simultaneously at the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas, Feb. 25, 2016.
The debate was dominated by personal insults, shouting and cross talk. A day later, the Republican candidates made it clear they weren’t finished fighting, with Trump making fun of the size of Rubio’s ears, and the Florida senator wondering whether the casino mogul might have urinated in his pants on stage.
“Here’s a guy who’s a nervous basket case,” Trump said in a mocking tone at a campaign speech in Texas. “You ought to see him backstage. He was putting makeup on with a trowel.”
After the crowd burst into laughter, Trump said: “Nah, I don’t want to say that. I will not say that he was trying to cover up his ears. I will not say that.” Later in the speech, he made fun of Rubio for sweating excessively and drinking too much water.
Rubio, emboldened by his feisty debate performance, also continued to escalate his attacks on Trump. At a rally in Dallas, the senator accused Trump of having a “meltdown” backstage at the debate.
“First, he had one of those makeup things applying around his mustache, because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then, he asked for a full-length mirror, I don’t know why … maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet,” Rubio said.
The attacks represented an astonishing turn of events for the two candidates, who until Friday had largely refrained from attacking one another.
According to analysts, the attacks were also a sign that Trump’s rivals fear he may begin running away with the Republican nomination after having won three of the first four states.
Trump has a large lead in most of the states set to vote next week on Super Tuesday, when about half of the delegates needed to win the nomination will be up for grabs.