Donald Trump tightened his claim on the GOP nomination Saturday by winning the South Carolina primary, a second-straight victory that adds momentum heading into the next battlegrounds, but the surprise of the night was a hasty withdrawal by Jeb Bush.
"The people of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken and I really respect their decision, so tonight I am suspending my campaign," the former Florida governor said in Columbia, S.C., choking up with tears.
The end was not unexpected but his decision, coming before the final results were known, was no less stunning. Bush backed out rather than face a humiliating hemorrhage of support.
The former governor entered the race a year ago as the frontrunner, amassing a huge financial advantage and brimming with policy ideas. But Bush, 63, never turned that into enthusiasm among voters, who were wary of elevating another Bush and saw the candidate as stiff, an establishment figure in an anti-establishment election. Trump relentlessly flogged Bush as "low energy" and hammered at Bush's moderate stance on immigration and support for Common Core.
Bush was on track to finish a distant fourth behind Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, adding fuel to their increasingly bitter and personal war to emerge as the candidate to take on Trump.
The Associated Press reported early this morning that Rubio narrowly edged Cruz for second place in the complete but unofficial results from the South Carolina GOP primary.
"After tonight," Rubio told boisterous supporters, "this has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination."
Surrounded by his family and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and African-American Sen. Tim Scott, Rubio called for a new era of conservatism.
"If you are watching tonight and you are that father that works two jobs so that your kids could have all the chances you never did, in the 21st century, we conservatives, we'll fight for you," the 44-year-old Florida senator said.
Cruz likewise claimed victory, even though his heavy emphasis on evangelicals should have led to a stronger performance. The Texas senator said the "Washington cartel" is in "full terror" that the conservative grass roots was rising and said the election would focus on replacing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Feb. 13 and whose funeral Cruz attended earlier Saturday in Washington.
But there was Trump notching another big victory.
The winner of the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 prevailed despite a week that included an uneven debate performance and controversial comments about Pope Francis, Muslims, torture, the Iraq War, Sept. 11 and more.
Trump took the victory stage to chants of "USA" and praised Cruz and Rubio for a strong fight.
"We are going to start winning for our country because our country doesn't win anymore," Trump said, citing struggles in defeating the Islamic State and a massive trade deal facing congressional approval.
"We're going to do the wall," Trump declared. "And by the way," he asked the crowd, "who's going to pay for the wall? Mexico's going to pay for the wall."
Fifty delegates were at stake and Trump claimed 29 for his win, with the remaining 21 to be divided among winners of the state's congressional districts. It makes it more possible that Trump will be the nominee, a scenario that terrifies party elite.
Voters leaving the polls said they were most concerned about terrorism, with the economy and jobs a close second. Immigration was less an issue, which could explain Rubio's strength despite being attacked for helping write the Senate's 2013 bill that provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents.
Trump, who came in second in Iowa to Cruz, is now the clear frontrunner and likely welcomes a larger field continuing into the March 1 Super Tuesday nominating contests.
The more Cruz and Rubio fight it out, the better for Trump. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who came in fifth, still sees a viable path, and he did not compete hard in South Carolina. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was sixth.
A key sign of Trump's strength: He won in a state whose Republican electorate is two-thirds evangelical. Trump has been married three times and once described himself as "very pro choice" on abortion.
The primary ended on an ugly note, not atypical for the slashing style of politics in South Carolina, with campaigns accusing each other of dirty tricks, including manipulated photos, robocalls and rumors that candidates were dropping out. Television was full of negative ads, including one from allies of Bush that portrayed Rubio as the next Barack Obama.
Rubio and Bush had been fighting a parallel primary, with Bush having needed to do well to tamp down calls that he drop out and pave a clear way for Rubio.
Bush's campaign made a furious last-minute effort to turn out voters, knocking on tens of thousands of doors and making phone calls. Bush himself visited several polling locations Saturday, angling for every last vote.
But Rubio clearly had more energy behind his campaign, recovering from a disastrous debate in New Hampshire and a fifth-place finish. On Wednesday, Rubio scored the coveted endorsement of Gov. Haley, and he spent the last few days barnstorming the state with her and two other key backers, Sen. Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy — a portrait of youth and diversity.
As Rubio rebounded, Bush seemed to fade, unable to excite voters even as he brought in his brother, the former president, and mother. Bush repeatedly tried to play up Rubio's lack of accomplishment and inexperience, but it did not resonate.
"We need somebody different than the Clintons or the Bushes," said Greg Ryberg, a former state senator who warmed up the crowd for Rubio in Aiken on Wednesday. "Jeb is a wonderful individual but I don't think it's his time. It's Sen. Rubio's time."
Bush did not mention Rubio in his speech. Rubio praised Bush as Florida's "greatest governor," and said he admired his service, his ideas and his family. "Jeb Bush has many things to be proud of."
As the polls were closing, fundraising reports were rolling into the Federal Election Commission, and they revealed more bad news for Bush. His super PAC, which pulled in $103 million in six months, had collected only $379,000 in January.
Rubio's super PAC netted $2.4 million in the same period, including a $1 million check from Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Now Rubio will likely see a flood of Bush's financial supporters come his way.