COLUMBIA — The Republican presidential hopefuls have two days to win support from S.C. voters — and a big question to answer.

Who will be the GOP’s anti-Trump, anti-Cruz candidate — promising to unite the party and, more importantly, beat the Democratic nominee in November?

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida became the most-likely-to-succeed Wednesday, winning the endorsement of S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.

But with Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas holding first and second in most S.C. polls, seizing the third-place ticket out of South Carolina could be the best hope for Rubio — and the other GOP candidates — to remain viable.

And third may not be enough.

Saturday’s primary could be the last shot for a mainstream GOP candidate to break out, preventing the nomination of an anti-establishment candidate — Trump, who won New Hampshire, or Cruz, who won Iowa. Party elders fear either would fare poorly in the general election.

“South Carolina is huge for the Republicans,” at least those hoping to avoid an anti-establishment candidate winning the nomination, said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel.

“If Rubio doesn’t make it into second, I’m hard pressed to see how long his candidacy can be viable.”

Polling third in most recent S.C. surveys, Rubio faces competition from others to be the anti-Trump, anti-Cruz, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

But a third-place finish could spell doom for any Republican who wants to be the mainstream alternative to Trump or Cruz.

“If he (Rubio) were to come in third in South Carolina” — after third in Iowa, then sliding in New Hampshire — “that’s not a harbinger of good things for Rubio or for the Republican establishment,” Buchanan said.

‘All fair in politics and war’

The stakes are high.

Voters nationally are looking to South Carolina to see who emerges at the top. After Saturday, the GOP nominating contest will speed up. Nevada Republicans caucus Tuesday. Then, contests explode south and west, making scarce the campaign stops that give voters a chance to meet candidates one on one.

Hoping to gain an advantage in the campaign’s final days, candidates and their allies are deluging S.C. voters with negative TV ads and fliers.

Some ads cast Trump, the New York billionaire propelled by populist rage and seemingly unsullied by criticism, as a potty mouth who lacks conservative or S.C. values. A flier mailed out this week from the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC says Trump built his famed New York City tower with “illegal immigrants” and supports universal, government-run health care and is soft on abortions.

Cruz, according to other ads, is “dangerously inconsistent,” flip-flopping on whether the United States should intervene in Syria. He is accused of once praising Ed Snowden, who leaked classified documents exposing U.S. spying programs, then condemning him as a traitor.

Rubio is an immigration shape-shifter who is short on executive experience and does not show up for his U.S. Senate job, othere ads say.

And Bush, like Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, is “tied to the past with ideas from the past,” supporting Common Core and bank bailouts, other ads say.

The race to shape public opinion also has taken on a subversive element.

Cruz’s campaign was accused of announcing Carson’s withdrawal from the GOP contest before the Iowa caucus. In the last GOP debate, Trump complained about robo-calls lying to S.C. voters, telling them that he is no longer running.

Rubio’s campaign is blaming Cruz for robotic calls that say the U.S. senator from Florida is for amnesty for undocumented immigrants and letting Syrian refugees in the country.

Also, a Facebook page — posing as belonging to U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy — falsely said the Upstate congressman was switching his endorsement to Cruz from Rubio. The page since has been disabled.

“It is living up to its billing,” Buchanan said of the S.C. campaign. “All is fair in politics and war.”

Haley backing ‘a big deal’

If current polls are predictive, Trump will win the state by double digits.

That would leave Cruz and Rubio jockeying for second place.

A battleground for Trump, Cruz and Rubio is evangelical votes, expected to make up more than half of S.C. GOP primary voters.

Rubio is hoping to peel some of the state’s faithful away from Trump, the favorite candidate of evangelicals. Thursday, for example, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will stump for Rubio at Columbia International University, a Christian school.

Some recent polls show Rubio tying or surpassing Cruz, suggesting he could have a shot at closing in on Trump.

Haley’s backing could help Rubio, political observers say.

Rubio also is counting on a boost from the support of Gowdy of Spartanburg — popular because of his role in investigating the Benghazi attacks — and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston — the only African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate and among the most popular politicians in the state.

Rubio has “three superstars who are trusted” backing him, said Katon Dawson, a long-time S.C. GOP insider and former state party chairman.

It’s a big deal for Gov. Haley to put her name on the line. Katon Dawson, former S.C. GOP chairman

“It’s a big deal for Gov. Haley to put her name on the line,” Dawson said of Haley’s endorsement of Rubio. The governor’s backing should convince undecided voters who are “looking for something to head them one way or another to take another look at Rubio.”

Both Rubio and Cruz have talented teams running their S.C. campaigns.

Asked who will finish ahead, Dawson said confidently, “Rubio will beat Cruz.”

Then, he hedged: “He should beat Cruz.”

‘Guys, go away’

Dawson said frontrunner Trump also faces higher stakes in Saturday’s primary.

“For once, the spread that Trump gets is what’s going to matter,” he said, adding Trump has been predicting he will take 40 percent of the primary’s vote, much like Newt Gingrich in 2012.

A win that big would be “a check-all that he’s passed the conservative test in South Carolina,” Dawson said, adding, “At the end of the day, we’re going to find out whether Trump’s campaign was a Ponzi scheme or for real.”

A Trump win in South Carolina would be huge for the billionaire developer and TV-reality star, Buchanan said. With the exception of Gingrich’s win in 2012, South Carolina voters correctly picked the eventual GOP nominee from 1980 to 2008.

That increases the pressure on Rubio to quickly run down Trump before a S.C. win becomes a Nevada win and then spreads across the so-called SEC primary states on March 1.

“If the establishment is serious about Rubio,” Buchanan said, “tell Bush, tell Kasich, tell Carson: ‘Guys, go away.’ ”

Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself

Elections 2016

Donald Trump has led every S.C. GOP presidential primary poll this year by margins as high as 22 points and as narrow as 14 points. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has finished second in all but four polls this year. In those polls, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio either topped or tied Cruz. A look at where the candidates stand, according to an average of polls:

Donald Trump: 34.5 percent

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz: 17.3 percent

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio: 16.8 percent

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: 10 percent

Ohio Gov. John Kasich: 9.7 percent

Ben Carson: 6.2 percent

SOURCE: Real Clear Politics

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