WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton overcame a strong challenge from Bernie Sanders to win the Nevada Democratic caucuses Saturday while South Carolina voters gilded Donald Trump’s status as front-runner in a Republican contest that knocked Jeb Bush out of the race.
Clinton’s victory places two of the first three states in the win column for the former secretary of state, sandwiching a New Hampshire win by her rival.
In South Carolina, Trump the New York billionaire staved off mainstream party rivals as well as the Iowa winner, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, to advance a high-flying campaign that seemed improbable from the start but no longer.
In his wake, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio competed fiercely for second, outdistancing opponents whose rationale for staying in the race came starkly into question.
Among them: Bush, once a presumed favorite for the nomination, bowed to reality and suspended his campaign – a step that means it’s over for him and the family that gave the country two presidents will not give it a third in 2016.
Republicans in South Carolina
Trump’s victory came after a week in which he threatened to sue one rival, accused former President George W. Bush of lying about the Iraq war and even tussled with Pope Francis on immigration. None of that knocked him off his unconventional game.
Cruz could not catch Trump despite an expensive get-out-the-vote operation and a conservative electorate with many evangelicals – a set of conditions for him to thrive.
South Carolinians surveyed after they voted expressed disenchantment with the GOP establishment and widespread support for temporarily banning Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from coming into the country – a Trump idea that roiled the race months ago.
Terrorism and the direction of the economy were among the top issues for GOP voters, according to exit polls.
Preference polls before primary night consistently found that Trump was the man to beat, with Cruz hovering in second, Rubio in striking distance, and Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson scrambling behind them.
That’s roughly how the night was shaping up, with Rubio and Cruz battling it out under the victor.
Trump took New Hampshire after Cruz won Iowa.
Democrats in Nevada
Clinton won in a state that was once seen as nearly a sure bet for her. Sanders made it hotly competitive, but she prevailed on the strength of her experience and her appeal to minorities, women, voters 45 and older, wealthier people and moderates, according to surveys of Nevadans as they arrived at the caucus sites.
In a continuing sign of her vulnerability, Sanders did best with voters looking for a candidate who is caring and honest. The socialist senator scored strongly with men, voters who are less affluent and educated, and people under 45 – exposing the age gap also seen in earlier contests.
Although far from the Clinton rout that could have turned the corner on the contest, her win nevertheless may ease the anxiety of some supporters after her razor-thin win in Iowa and big loss in New Hampshire.
“I am so thrilled and so grateful,” she told supporters. “Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other.”
Black voters strongly favored Clinton; Hispanics were closely divided. It was the Democratic race in a state with an ethnically diverse population.
– “If Ronald Reagan can smash the American dream from right field, then Bernie can build it back up from left field.” – Dale Quale, 60, a veteran who lives in a transitional housing in Las Vegas, on why he’s caucusing for Sanders and why he volunteered for his campaign.
– “I’ve seen Hillary do things for the Mexicans, I’ve seen her do things for the blacks, the whites, all of them. … I’m going to be here to put her in office – they’re going to hear my mouth.” – Mary Moore, 60, in Las Vegas, on why she’s supporting Clinton.
– “Carson is my favorite in the race but I don’t think he’ll make it through the election. As much as I like the Bush family I think that’s played. And I think Marco Rubio is too young. So it came down to Cruz and Kasich and I think Kasich is someone who can unite the country and win the general election.” – Steve Wilbourne, 46, of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, on why he voted for the Ohio governor.
– “As much as I’d like to see a Christian as president, I’m not sure anyone can stay a Christian in that office.” – Teresa Farley, 60, in Columbia, South Carolina, explaining that Carson was her favorite but he doesn’t “stand a chance” so she voted for Trump.
– “It’s been crazy.” – Allison Reilly, 18, on what it was like to pay attention to her first campaign as a voting-age adult. She drove 150 miles from her university to her parents’ house in Columbia to cast her first ballot – for Rubio.
Evangelicals and tea party conservatives were 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.
In Nevada, Hispanic and black voters, as well as union members, were important for Democrats.
Nevadans backed Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008 on his way to the presidency.
The parties flip states: The Republican caucuses in Nevada are Tuesday and South Carolina’s Democratic primary comes Feb. 27.
Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas and Jeffrey Collins and Bruce Smith in South Carolina contributed to this report.
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Updates with Bush pulling out.
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