Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary, but others were claiming victory as well emerging from the first southern vote of the 2016 presidential election.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished slightly behind Jeb Bush, who dropped out before the last votes were counted. With a single-digits showing, Kasich was touting his position as the last governor standing.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was slightly ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for second place, and both gave speeches declaring that they were now on the path to victory.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Trump had 32.5 percent, Rubio was at 22.5 percent, Cruz had 22.3 percent, Bush was at 7.8 percent, Kasich took 7.6 percent and Ben Carson rounded out the pack at 7.2 percent.
Carson quickly appeared to tell supporters that he was not dropping out. “We’ve barely finished the first inning, and there’s a lot of game left,” said the pediatric neurosurgeon. “I look forward to carrying on.”
Trump began his remarks with a dig at South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who endorsed Rubio this week and was by the senator’s side tonight.
Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster stood with Trump and his family tonight, and the real-estate mogul stressed he would take McMaster “over the governor of South Carolina anytime.”
Melania Trump also made a rare statement, calling South Carolina “an amazing place” and offering “congratulations to my husband.”
“We are going ahead to Nevada and we will see what happens,” she said.
Trump gave an impromptu version of his standard stump speech about making Mexico pay for a border wall and making America great again.
Trump congratulated Rubio and Cruz for doing “quite well,” and promised to return to his regular rhetoric tomorrow after some of his supporters booed.
Running for president isn’t easy, he said. “It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s beautiful… when you win, it’s beautiful.”
Trump did not acknowledge Bush dropping out of the race, while Rubio paid homage to the “greatest governor in the history of Florida.”
“After tonight this has become a three-person race and we will win the nomination,” Rubio enthusiastically declared alongside his state team of Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
“Now the children of the Reagan Revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership,” Rubio said, adding that those who grew up under the 40th president must “do for the next generation what he did for ours.”
“The son of bartender and a maid stands one step closer to being the 45th president of the United States of America…we fight for those who are still trying to make it.”
Evangelical voters made up 74 percent of the South Carolina electorate, according to CNN exit polls. Fifty-three percent said they supported a path to legalization for illegal immigrants, with 43 percent favoring deportation. On the question of who “ran the most unfair campaign,” 41 percent pointed at Trump while 32 percent thought Cruz was most down in the mud.
Cruz, who won voters who described themselves as “very conservative” by 10 points, appeared at his own rally after Rubio spoke, declaring that his campaign continues “to defy the pundits and produce extraordinary results.”
He praised Jeb as “a man who had a terrific record as governor of Florida,” who “ran a campaign based on ideas” who “didn’t go to the gutter and engage in insults and attacks.”
“Governor Bush brought honor and dignity to this race,” Cruz said.
The Texas senator asked for a moment of silence for late Justice Antonin Scalia, stressing that the election is a referendum on the Supreme Court. “Justice Scalia’s successor will not be decided by the Washington powerbrokers,” he said. “It will be decided by we the people.”
“I cannot wait to stand on that debate stage with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or whatever other socialist they nominate,” Cruz continued. “…We are the only campaign that has beaten and can beat Donald Trump.”
Kasich’s chief strategist John Weaver said that “tonight it became a four-person race for the nomination.”
“Only four candidates have top-three finishes in any of the early states and can justify staying in. At the same time, John Kasich has now won the so-called ‘Governors Bracket’ by continuing to run strong and beat expectations,” Weaver said. “While others were making their last stand in South Carolina, John Kasich strengthened his organization and support — despite being outspent by tens of millions of dollars.”
Kasich is “focused on the key states ahead for us, like Michigan,” where he was in second place in an ARG tracking poll released today, and Massachusetts and Vermont. Next week Kasich campaigns in Virginia, where he is running third in polls and opened three field offices this past week.
“As the race narrows to four candidates and enters the next phase, it also turns toward states that favor the governor and make his path to the nomination increasingly clear,” Weaver said.
UPDATE 12:30 a.m.: The South Carolina State Election Commission says voter turnout was a little over 24 percent. With 45 of 46 counties fully reporting, Rubio held a 1,514 vote lead over Cruz. The last outstanding county, Aiken, had Rubio with 913 votes to 725 for Cruz with most precincts still yet to report.