The race to the White House entered its third round Saturday as Republicans began voting in a South Carolina primary and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off for the Democrats in Nevada caucuses.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (1200 GMT) in South Carolina, where pre-vote surveys showed flamboyant businessman Donald Trump with a commanding lead over five Republican rivals.
Trump is banking on a big symbolic win ahead of “Super Tuesday” — March 1, when about a dozen states will go to the polls to choose candidates for the November 8 presidential election, with a quarter of the nominating delegates up for grabs.
“It’s crunch time, folks,” Trump, 69, told voters at a North Charleston rally, his final pitch Friday before the primary.
The real estate billionaire finished second to Texas Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa on February 1, but secured a commanding win in New Hampshire one week later.
“I don’t want your money,” said Trump, who is self-funding his campaign. “We want your vote.”
The onetime reality TV star who has upended the political landscape with his brash style and controversial comments has his eye on a particular date: March 15.
After that day, many of the Republican primaries will be winner-takes-all in terms of delegates. If his five rivals are still in the race at that point, they will be splitting the anti-Trump vote — and increasing his chances of winning the nomination.
On the eve of the primary, Trump led with about 28 percent of likely Republicans voters backing him, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
The ultra-conservative Cruz followed with 23 percent. Trailing were Senator Marco Rubio at 15 percent and former Florida governor Jeb Bush at 13 percent.
Rubio and Bush are under intense pressure to fare well Saturday, as is Ohio Governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign has struggled to gain ground.
In the past week Trump repeatedly called Cruz a liar, and his attorneys even sent the senator a cease and desist letter over a TV ad that uses a 1999 interview in which Trump said he was “very pro-choice” on abortion rights.
Trump has since changed his stance on the sensitive issue.
– Clinton bets on immigration –
To the west in the desert state of Nevada, Democrats will caucus — group themselves together by candidate to voice their support — starting at 11 am (1900 GMT).
Both Clinton and Sanders have been working hard to reach out to the African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans that make up roughly half of the state’s population.
Clinton, who won by a hair in Iowa but was crushed by Sanders in New Hampshire, is counting on a major Hispanic voter turnout, especially among Las Vegas hotel and casino employees.
Nevada has some three million residents, and the population is overwhelmingly concentrated in Las Vegas and Reno, the state’s two large urban centers.
Since Wednesday, the former secretary of state has visited staff at casinos in Las Vegas, where workers can “caucus” right on the famous Strip.
Clinton says she is the natural Latino ally on immigration, and promises a quick path to citizenship for those in the country illegally if elected.
The former first lady, 68, has relentlessly attacked Sanders for voting against immigration reform in 2007. However Sanders said the measure gave little protection for foreign “guest workers,” and that he voted for a 2013 immigration reform bill that died due to Republican opposition.
“As president, I will do everything that I can to pass immigration reform and a path toward citizenship for those who today are undocumented,” Sanders, 74, said Thursday on MSNBC.
Clinton claims that Sanders is offering impractical, pie-in-the-sky ideas.
– Sanders’s 1963 arrest –
Clinton on Friday was endorsed by South Carolina House Democrat James Clyburn, the most senior African-American in Congress.
“When you add up everything, taking a look at the resumes, a look at the set of experiences, it was just clear to me that where we are in the country today, that Hillary Clinton… has all that I think is required to make a very good president,” Clyburn told CNN.
But Sanders’s camp is convinced that young minority voters will back him.
“Because of the momentum that Bernie has created with the win in New Hampshire and the tie in Iowa, we have been able to have the platform to speak to a broader audience, including the Latino community,” Erika Andiola, a Sanders spokeswoman, told AFP in Las Vegas.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is hoping that his own civil rights activist background will attract young voters.
The Chicago Tribune on Friday unearthed a 1963 photo of a 21 year-old Sanders being hauled away by police during a protest against Chicago school segregation.
“Bernie identified it himself,” campaign adviser Tad Devine told the Tribune. At the time Sanders was charged with resisting arrest, found guilty and fined $25.