Punch, counterpunch: GOP hopefuls bare knuckles in Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Jeb Bush says he was better at real estate than Donald Trump, and the former Florida governor is even embracing the "establishment" label.

Marco Rubio is unloading on nearly all of his presidential rivals, Trump and Bush included, declaring them unprepared for the national security responsibilities of the job.

Ted Cruz says Trump isn't conservative enough for South Carolina. John Kasich's throwing a few elbows amid his nice-guy pitch.

And Trump, who leads them all in the polls, was in Louisiana, which doesn't even vote until March 5 — two weeks after South Carolina, known for rough-and-tumble Republican primaries, takes its shot at bringing order to this scrambled Republican race for the White House.

The Democratic presidential contest had its moments Thursday, too, even before Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met for their evening debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Clinton got the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee, part of the two rivals' continued drive for minority voters ahead of the Nevada caucus and a slate of Southern primaries that will give non-whites their first major say in the nominating contest.

Perhaps more noteworthy was civil rights hero John Lewis, a Georgia congressman, dismissing Sanders' work in the civil rights movement as a college student in the 1960s. "Never saw him," Lewis said.

Among Republicans, several candidates embraced the chaos Thursday as they felt out the best strategies to survive South Carolina and advance into a grueling March primary schedule, when 58 percent of the party's delegate total will be at stake.

Rubio, looking to re-establish his footing after a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, lashed out at Trump, Cruz and Bush as he addressed retirees near the resort town of Hilton Head.

Of real estate mogul Trump, Rubio said, "Negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience." A first-term senator, Rubio also said Bush, at one time Rubio's mentor in Florida politics, has no foreign policy experience. Rubio accused Cruz, another first-term senator, of hurting U.S. military might with his budget stances.

In Sumter, South Carolina, Bush effectively called Trump a failure. The former Florida governor, himself once a commercial real estate executive, said he "didn't go bankrupt four times and call that success."

Bush cited his brother and father, both former presidents, as well, saying he embraces the "establishment" label — generally anathema in this election defined by voter anger. His campaign confirmed former President George W. Bush will campaign in South Carolina next week.

Trump made clear he was ready to take on the former president during a rally Thursday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Trump repeated his own opposition to the war in Iraq and pointed to George W. Bush "getting us in that quicksand."

"That was a horrible call to go in," Trump said.

Kasich, the Ohio governor, continued his town hall tour, pledging a positive campaign and alluding to continued efforts by the Bush campaign to label him as weak on defense. "I'm worried about Jeb. It's all negative," Kasich said. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. Either it will work or it won't."

The web of punches and counterpunches thus far in South Carolina reflects the fractured nature of the primary and the Republican electorate. The GOP primary here is expected to draw more than 700,000 voters, dwarfing the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. The total will include sizable groups of all GOP factions: religious and social conservatives, business and fiscal conservatives, and national security hawks.

With polls suggesting Trump has a healthy lead, it could become a matter of simply trying to claim momentum and a handful of delegates. South Carolina Republicans award 29 out of 50 delegates to the overall statewide winner. The other 21 delegates are distributed evenly to the winners of the seven congressional districts.

That leaves candidates to gamble on where to prioritize their efforts as they await a Saturday debate in Greenville, South Carolina, that could afford some of them their lone opportunity to move large numbers of voters.

Cruz, who has run second in South Carolina polling, will try to catch Trump by leaning heavily on evangelicals. Iowa and New Hampshire exit polls show Trump competed well with Cruz among voters who call themselves born-again Christians.

The Texas senator's schedule through the weekend targets evangelicals. "You run first by energizing your base," Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said Thursday.

Rubio banked on coming into South Carolina as the clear favorite for traditionalist Republicans wary of Trump and Cruz, creating effectively a three-man race going forward. Instead, he finished New Hampshire looking up at Kasich and Bush, and now finds himself trying to peel votes from all the other campaigns.

The two governors are concentrating their early efforts along the South Carolina coast, which includes many transplants, veterans and active military — and which has trended in the past to more moderate candidates like Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 nominee, and John McCain, the 2008 nominee.


Associated Press reporters Steve Peoples in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Kathleen Ronayne in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.


Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.