SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) – Yes, Donald Trump could really be the Republican nominee.
The blunt-talking billionaire posted his second straight victory in South Carolina's Republican primary Saturday, ending any lingering doubts that he could transform his passionate supporters into voters. On the other side of the country, Hillary Clinton blunted concerns about her viability with a clear victory over Bernie Sanders in Nevada, the first state to test the Democrats' appeal among a racially diverse group of voters.
Trump, now the clear leader in the delegate race, cemented his standing as his party's favorite. No Republican in modern times has won New Hampshire and South Carolina and then failed to win the nomination. Having proven his mettle in South Carolina, Trump emerged well-primed for more winning as the primary heads toward a cluster of Southern states.
"It's tough, it's nasty, it's mean, it's vicious," Trump said of the rollicking presidential campaign. "It's beautiful. When you win, it's beautiful."
Though Trump's victory was vindication for political mavericks whose hunger for an outsider has defined this year's campaign, those fortunes didn't extend to Sanders. After winning the second contest in New Hampshire, the self-declared democratic socialist came up in short in Nevada, where Clinton collected the majority of delegates and told gleeful supporters that "this one is for you."
For Jeb Bush, it was the end of the line. His donors ready to bolt, the political scion dropped out of the race after failing to break into the top three.
Trump routed his rivals by capturing roughly one-third of the votes in South Carolina. Sen. Marco Rubio edged fellow freshman Sen. Ted Cruz for second place, according to complete but unofficial results. John Kasich shrugged off a weak performance in South Carolina, a conservative state the Ohio governor had largely written off.
From here, Republicans and Democrats swap places, with the GOP candidates preparing to face off Tuesday in Nevada and the Democrats four days later in South Carolina. The bigger prize comes a few days later, when a dozen states vote on March 1, with oodles of delegates up for grabs.
A string of victories for Clinton and Trump in those Super Tuesday contests would give them commanding leads in the delegate race, dampening prospects for their rivals to catch up. Already, Trump leads Republicans with 61 of the needed 1,237 delegates, while Clinton has 503 to Sanders' 70, including superdelegates who back the candidate of their choice.
When Trump jumped into the race eight months ago, most Republican leaders dismissed the real estate mogul, insisting the die-hards packing his amped-up rallies were fans, not real voters. Not anymore.
The biggest question facing Republicans now is whether those seeking to spoil a Trump nomination have simply run out of time. Both Cruz and Rubio hinted at their strategy for knocking him out as they addressed supporters after polls closed.
"We are the only campaign that has beaten and can beat Donald Trump," said Cruz, the victor of the Iowa caucuses. "If you are a conservative, this is where you belong because only one strong conservative is in a position to win this race."
Rubio, the fresh-faced son of Cuban immigrants, has insisted he's the only Republican that can best Clinton or another Democrat with a voting public that's growing younger and more diverse. Having finally dispensed with Bush, he confidently told supporters in Columbia that "this has become a three-person race."
"This country is now ready for a new generation of conservatives to guide us into the 21st century," Rubio said, flanked by South Carolina's Indian-American Gov. Nikki Haley and African-American Sen. Tim Scott.
Clinton's victory was a relief for her campaign following her blowout loss in New Hampshire. She captured voters who said electability and experience were important to their vote, according to entrance polls Edison Research conducted for The Associated Press and TV networks. But in sign of Clinton's continuing vulnerability, Sanders did best with voters seeking someone caring and honest.
"We have come a very long way in nine months," Sanders said. He waxed optimistic that "the wind is at our backs."
Backed by a powerful network of small-dollar donors, Sanders has plenty of funds to stay in for months. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson vowed to keep campaigning despite lagging far behind his fellow Republicans.