Trying to re-establish his place as a White House contender, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is unloading on nearly all of his rivals, declaring them unprepared for the national security responsibilities of the presidency.
Ted Cruz says Donald Trump isn't conservative enough to be the GOP nominee. Jeb Bush's backers are painting John Kasich as weak on defense. Kasich (mostly) maintains that he's a nice guy.
And Trump, the first-time candidate who leads them all, is headed to Louisiana, which doesn't vote until March 5, two weeks after next-up South Carolina takes its shot at bringing order to this scrambled Republican race for president.
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The Democratic primary was simpler, but no more predictable Thursday. Hillary Clinton picked up the endorsement of Congressional Black Caucus political action committee as she and Bernie Sanders angle for minority voters ahead of the Nevada caucus and a slate of Southern primaries that will give minority voters their first say in the nominating contest. The two rivals are preparing for an evening debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Rubio tried to embrace the GOP uncertainty Thursday, lashing out at Trump, Cruz and Bush on national security at a retiree community outside Hilton Head, South Carolina. He suggested that a nomination fight lasting through to the GOP's summer convention isn't a negative, ultimately leaving the delegates to argue over a nominee after they convene.
On real estate mogul Trump, Rubio declared: "Negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience." Bush, at one time Rubio's mentor in Florida politics, has no foreign policy experience either, the first-term senator said. Rubio accused Cruz, another first-term senator, of hurting U.S. military might with his budget stances.
His comments marked a shift in rhetoric as Rubio tries to retool his once-ascendant campaign days after his fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary; it also highlights the layered battle in South Carolina, as candidates in a still crowded field feel out their best strategies for surviving here and advancing into a grueling March primary schedule, when 58 percent of the party's delegate total will be at stake.
Polls suggest Trump leads in South Carolina and nationally, with Cruz running a strong second. Rubio banked on coming into South Carolina as the clear favorite for traditionalist Republicans wary over Trump and Cruz, creating effectively a three-man race going forward. Instead, he finished New Hampshire looking up at Kasich, the sitting Ohio governor, and Bush, the former Florida governor.
Now there are seemingly at least two primaries within a primary.
Cruz will lean heavily on religious and tea party conservatives, a sizable faction of the South Carolina primary electorate expected to top 700,000 voters, far outpacing Iowa and New Hampshire. Exit polls from Iowa and New Hampshire show Trump competed well with Cruz among voters who call themselves born-again Christians.
"You run first by energizing your base," said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier, confirming that while Cruz "will compete statewide" in South Carolina, he will concentrate his time in the upstate where religious conservatives are dominant. She confirmed Cruz will continue to highlight Trump's past, an allusion to his public support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Bush and Kasich, meanwhile, 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.
As they did in New Hampshire, where Kasich finished second, Bush aides have accused Kasich of being weak on defense because of his congressional position on base closures.
At a Pawley's Island pancake house Thursday, Kasich pledged a positive campaign. "I'm worried about Jeb. It's all negative," he said. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. Either it will work or it won't."
Bush has appearances scheduled later Thursday.
Associated Press reporters Steve Peoples in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Kathleen Ronayne in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, contributed to this report.