GOP establishment braces for S.C. showdown

Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN)Donald Trump's dominance in the New Hampshire primary is sparking a feverish battle in South Carolina for someone to emerge as the establishment favorite.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich came in at a distant second place in New Hampshire, but his moderate message could be a tough sell in the conservative Palmetto State. With Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio finishing the night close together in fourth and fifth place,no candidate emerged as the clear leader of the establishment pack.
All of this gives Trump, who had a commanding win here, more fuel to coalesce his support in South Carolina ahead of its Republican primary on February 20.
David Wilkins, the former South Carolina House speaker, said the pressure is on for the party establishment.
    Trump's win "puts that much more pressure on an establishment candidate to come out of the pack," said Wilkins, who is backing Bush. "Particularly if you don't do well in New Hampshire, you need to do well in South Carolina."
    There is symbolic importance to winning South Carolina, a state famous for choosing the Republican Party's eventual nominee. With the single exception of 2012, when the state backed Newt Gingrich, South Carolina has voted for the eventual GOP nominee since 1980.
    Political veterans have come to view South Carolina as the early state that best represents a wide cross section of the political right.
    It is considered a better barometer of the overall sentiment of the Republican base than Iowa, which in recent years has anointed the ultra-conservative candidate out of the GOP pack, or New Hampshire, whose large bloc of independent voters can produce unpredictable outcomes.
    "The idea is, if you can win South Carolina, you can win nationally. We have a very diverse electorate here, the state is diverse geographically and diverse in terms of issues people care about," said South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore. "So it is a serious test -- there's no other way of putting it."

    Momentum

    Winning the state -- or at least coming in a close second- or third-place there -- would also give a boost of momentum ahead of the so-called "SEC primary" on March 1. A dozen states -- including several key southern states like Texas and Alabama -- hold GOP primaries and caucuses that day.
    For now, Trump appears to have the edge in South Carolina, according to the limited polling that's available. But he's not taking any chances, releasing an ad in the state on Tuesday slamming Ted Cruz -- the billionaire's closest rival in Iowa -- as "the worst kind of Washington insider."
    For Bush, there is deep family history in South Carolina.
    Both his father, George H.W. Bush, and brother, George W. Bush, won the state. In 2000, after losing New Hampshire by a wide margin, South Carolina marked a critical comeback moment for George W. Bush. After largely staying away from the spotlight of the 2016 campaign, the former president is planning to campaign for his brother in South Carolina and has already appeared in a Right to Rise TV ad.
    Jeb Bush also nabbed a key endorsement from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dropped his own presidential bid in December.
    "If Jeb Bush finishes in the top three up here (in New Hampshire), he's got a good organization and a lot of family friends down there," said veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black. "If Jeb gets any momentum and boost out of here, he might be competitive in South Carolina."
    Marco Rubio also has high expectations as he head into the state after a disappointing finish in New Hampshire.
    His campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, is a long-time South Carolina operative, and his team has been laying down the groundwork ensure a strong showing in the state. Rubio also has prominent Republicans backing him in the state, including Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy. Both members of Congress will campaign with Rubio this week in their home state.
    With the stakes so high, the mud-slinging and political attacks are only expected to escalate -- particularly heading into a state that's infamous for its tough, bare-knuckle politics.
    In the 2000 presidential election, the bitter onslaught between George W. Bush and John McCain were particularly pronounced in South Carolina.
    The Bush campaign was especially notable for its use of hardball tactics, and was accused of launching a dirty smear campaign against McCain that centered on the suggestion that the the senator had fathered a black child out of wedlock and that his wife, Cindy, was a drug addict.
    Former state Rep. Bakari Sellers described the state as having "southern charm -- with elbows."
    "The Sunday morning before the race you're going to have a flyer on your church window with something negative about one of these guys -- all of them," said Sellers, who is also a CNN contributor. "You haven't seen anything yet. Just wait."