SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Republican presidential candidates hurtled across South Carolina on Friday, one day before the state’s primary, as polls showed the race tightening after an often nasty week of campaigning. Across the country in Nevada, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton tried to lock down supporters in the fiercely contested caucuses there.
The vote on Saturday is a critical test of organization and strength for both parties. Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina comes as Donald J. Trump’s rivals are closing in on him after he enjoyed comfortable leads in the polls here. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed him just 5 points ahead, down from his 16-point lead in the state a month ago.
The poll had Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in second place with 23 percent, followed by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in third place with 15 percent, and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, in fourth place with 13 percent. Ben Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio each had 9 percent.
As the Republican field winnows, nearly all of the remaining contenders need to deliver strong performances. A big victory by Mr. Trump would give him momentum that could add a sheen of inevitability to his candidacy heading into the crucial March 1 contests, when 12 states vote, many of them in the South. The winner in South Carolina will take 29 of the 50 delegates; the remaining 21, divided among the seven congressional districts, will go to the winners in those districts.
The stakes are just as great in Saturday’s voting in Nevada, where Mr. Sanders held three rallies in cities hundreds of miles apart. “I hope we have a very large, very very large, voter turnout tomorrow,” he told hundreds of people at a gym in Elko. “Show the world that democracy is alive and well here in Nevada.”
Mrs. Clinton held one public rally and several smaller meetings in the state Friday to get her supporters out to the caucuses. But unreliable polling and a history of lower turnout in Nevada made the outcome of Saturday’s caucuses uncertain. Mrs. Clinton had once considered Nevada a firewall, but Mr. Sanders has made recent inroads in the state following his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
On the Republican side, Mr. Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, is eager to prove his appeal is broader than that of the previous winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who struggled to attract voters beyond their base of evangelical support. In recent days, Mr. Cruz’s rivalries with Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio have turned particularly heated, producing a hail of negative advertising, semi-substantiated attacks, threatened litigation, accusations of doctored images and persistent charges of foul play among the three men.
In a series of rallies on Friday — which included a chat with the television host Sean Hannity, an endorsement from Representative Mark Sanford and extended monologues from Phil Robertson, a Cruz supporter and “Duck Dynasty” star — Mr. Cruz made a play for the folksy.
“I can shoot me a bird,” he boasted in Charleston. He later detailed the parallels between South Carolina and his home state of Texas, invoking “the South Carolinians who went down to Texas and spilled their blood at the Alamo.”
Graphic | Who Is Leading the South Carolina Polls A look at the latest results for Iowa and New Hampshire, and how this year compares to previous election seasons.
But Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump also ensured that their escalation of hostilities continued apace — a bitterness that has seeped deeply into the feelings of voters.
Mr. Cruz mocked Mr. Trump’s penchant for generalities. “It’s easy to say ‘make America great again,’ ” he told supporters in a room overlooking the ocean. “Do you understand what made America great in the first place?”
He also expressed astonishment at Mr. Trump’s suggestion that he would stay “neutral” in disputes between Israel and its enemies. “I have no intention of being neutral,” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Trump called Mr. Cruz the “biggest liar I’ve ever seen,” a common refrain all week.
Mr. Rubio, for his part, sought to rise above the fray, even as his campaign continued to hammer Mr. Cruz as dishonest. One news release on Friday was titled: “Rubio Campaign Warns SC Voters: Beware Primary Day Tricks By Cruz.”
Eager to rebound from a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, Mr. Rubio held forth in downtown Columbia, S.C., presenting his campaign themes and his army of big-name supporters.
“We have a chance to be the authors of the greatest chapter in the story of America, and that is why I’m asking you for your support tomorrow,” Mr. Rubio said.
In a show of force intended to underscore his message of ushering in a new generation of Republican stars, Mr. Rubio was flanked by the political leaders here who have endorsed him — a diverse lot that included Gov. Nikki R. Haley, an Indian-American; Tim Scott, a United States senator who is black; and Trey Gowdy, a popular congressman who is white.
“The new conservative movement looks like a Benetton commercial,” Ms. Haley shouted to the crowd, which she beckoned to join her and Mr. Rubio on stage.
The generational pitch was a sharp contrast to Mr. Bush’s nostalgia-tinged push. During his three-stop swing through the northwest part of the state, Mr. Bush was joined by his mother, Barbara Bush; one his sons (Jeb Jr. — or “2.0,” as he is called); his wife, Columba; and his two younger brothers, Neil and Marvin.
Graphic | 2016 Primary Results and Calendar The 2016 primaries and caucuses have begun. See results and upcoming primary dates.
“You like Bushes?” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Bush supporter, asked the crowd here. “We’ve got a pile of Bushes.”
Mr. Bush is under increasing pressure from donors and supporters to drop out if he does not place in the top three, or finishes far behind Mr. Rubio.
The family matriarch urged voters to give her son a longer look.
“Jeb has been a great son, a great father, a great husband, married well, and is one of my four favorite sons,” Ms. Bush, 90, said on Friday morning. “He’s steady, he’s honest, he is modest, he’s kind, he is good.”
In Myrtle Beach, Mr. Trump cited polls that showed him having the most support on the economy, national security and immigration. “The only thing I’m a little weak on,” he said, “is my personality, but who the hell cares?”
Mr. Trump held three rallies on Friday in coastal communities — Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and Charleston — that are rich in moderate Republicans and independents. Many residents say they remain torn over their options, but it is clear that vitriol will persist long after the vote.
“I was somewhat of a fan of Cruz, but I don’t like the way he’s been lately,” Steve Armendt said at the Trump rally in Myrtle Beach. “I don’t like the way he’s slinging mud against Trump.”
“He’s all yadda yadda yadda,” a Cruz attendee, Mike Loebs, said of Mr. Trump.
Among the lower-polling candidates, every prospective vote, it seemed, was a reason to be grateful. After a town hall-style forum in Columbia, Mr. Kasich appeared to take expectation management to the extreme.
“People thought we would get, you know, like, maybe two or three votes,” he told reporters. “I think we’re going to do better than that.”
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