Republicans are looking for clarity, and on Saturday, they got some, courtesy of South Carolina.
Two messages rang through loud and clear.
First, Donald Trump is now firmly in control of the Republican race. Yes, the GOP establishment views him with trepidation, but by rallying about a third of Republican primary voters to his cause, he’s well on his way to a hostile takeover of their party.
That’s not to say Trump has the nomination wrapped up. There’s a lot of campaign left, after all. But even Trump skeptics — and I’m one — have to concede that he’s now in a commanding position. And, further, that he’ll stay there until the field consolidates significantly.
That said, we saw further consolidation Saturday night, because the Palmetto State’s other big message was this: The tide’s ebbed, Jeb. The state that played a critical role in lifting George H. W. Bush (1988) and George W. Bush (2000) to the GOP nomination left this Bush high and dry.
Recognizing that, Bush said he was all done, in a classy exit. Nor is there any plausible path to viability for Ben Carson, though that’s long been the case.
Then there’s the muddled middle, or, by name, Mssrs. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Both had fought furiously to get some separation from the other. Neither did. Nor did either make it close with Trump.
Each will of course now argue he’s the one the party should rally around to stop Trump.
Here, however, problems and questions intercede.
For Cruz, it’s this: Given a choice between Donald and Ted, many Republicans would rally around Trump to stop Cruz.
Rubio is more broadly acceptable to the various parts of the party. And when he declared in his speech that it’s now three-person race, the real message was clear: Rally round me, my Republican brethren, or get Trump.
And yet, despite endorsements from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and US Representative Trey Gowdy, in the final analysis, Rubio really didn’t close strongly.
That underscores this question: Is the young, sometimes charismatic, other times robotic Florida senator truly the anti-Trump answer?
Finally, there’s John Kasich, who spent the night neck-and-neck with Bush. The Ohio governor has already made it clear he’s staying in the race, his logic being that his potential strong region, the Midwest, lies ahead.
His South Carolina finish doesn’t enhance his chances, but neither did it deal his prospects a fatal blow.
He lives to fight another day.