COLUMBIA, S.C. — Donald J. Trump won a clear victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, cementing his position as the Republican presidential front-runner as he enters a tougher test in a series of potentially decisive March contests.

Sunset WineMr. Trump ran ahead of Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who were locked in a battle for second place.

Both have struggled to become the principal alternative to Mr. Trump, a larger-than-life candidate from outside the political system whose nomination would upend the Republican Party.

Mr. Trump has so far benefited from a fractious group of candidates running against him. But the results in South Carolina narrowed that field to a small and tenacious handful, possibly opening the way for a concerted challenge to Mr. Trump next month in delegate-rich states like Texas, Virginia and Florida.

He didn’t win “an” undecided delegate – he won all all 50.

Yet by capturing the first Southern primary immediately after winning New Hampshire in a landslide, Mr. Trump made clear that he would not be easy to stop. Using blunt and at times incendiary language, he found strong support from Republicans without a college degree, who are angriest about the federal government and who favor a hard line on illegal immigration, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls.

Mr. Trump’s victory here was not as sweeping as the one in New Hampshire, and there were warning signs as he slipped among women and younger voters. But he still outpaced his rivals among both independents and Republicans and ran about even for the evangelical vote while easily capturing those who do not describe themselves as deeply religious. He also seemed to have built a coalition that will remain with him through adversity: More than half of voters who made their decisions over a month ago picked Mr. Trump, exit polls showed.

That support held through a tumultuous week in South Carolina, during which Mr. Trump encountered harsh attacks and invited controversy. He faced severe criticism for his past support of abortion rights and for trying to evict an elderly woman from her home to build a casino parking lot in Atlantic City. And he ridiculed President George W. Bush’s handling of terrorism and the Iraq war, criticisms assumed to be ill-considered in any Republican primary, but particularly in a military-rich state that delivered victories to Mr. Bush and his father.

Jeb Bush brought his older brother, his mother, Barbara, and other relatives to South Carolina to campaign for him. But primary voters here indicated that whatever affection they had for the Bush family was largely nostalgic. They thoroughly rejected Jeb Bush’s candidacy.

And in his concession speech… Jeb cried.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio also finished well behind the top three candidates, but was already seeking to make a case for continuing his candidacy by leaving South Carolina and campaigning Saturday in Vermont and Massachusetts, which hold primaries on Super Tuesday, March 1, along with 11 other states and American Samoa. (South Carolina’s Democratic primary will be held on Feb. 27.)

Nevada will hold its Republican caucuses earlier, this Tuesday. But with so little time for campaigning there, and a quarter of all national delegates up for grabs one week later, Super Tuesday looms as a crucial test of whether Mr. Trump will continue his once-unthinkable march to the nomination or will face a stiffer challenge from a culled field.

Seven of the March 1 states are either in the South or border that conservative-leaning region, making the next 10 days pivotal for Mr. Cruz, who has staked his candidacy on being able to consolidate party hard-liners.

Such voters, however, appear divided. Mr. Trump, who has never held elected office and rails against political leaders, led the polls in South Carolina for months, typically by double-digit margins. He attracted huge crowds here over the last week and drew raucous applause with his calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration and a ruthless war against Islamic terrorism.

On the eve of the primary, Mr. Trump reiterated his support for using torture against suspected terrorists and, musing about how to stop Islamic radicals, repeated approvingly an account of how the early 20th-century Army general John J. Pershing, before executing Muslim prisoners in the Philippines, “took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood.” (The story has circulated for years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but is apparently apocryphal.)

More remarkable given where the race took place was Mr. Trump’s repeated mocking of George W. Bush’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks. And his claim in a debate last weekend that the Bush administration had deliberately lied to start a war in Iraq drew sharp rebukes from national Republican leaders, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Then, on Thursday, Mr. Trump riled up a crowd on Kiawah Island by responding with indignation to criticism from an unlikely source: Pope Francis, who suggested that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on immigration was inconsistent with Christian principles.

Mr. Trump’s opponents hoped that the spat over Iraq, in particular, might sap his strength in South Carolina. But while exit polls showed that late-deciding voters chose Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz by a wide margin over Mr. Trump, there was little sign of a large-scale collapse in his support.

“There is a frustration about the direction of the country that has been building over the last seven years,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a supporter of Mr. Rubio’s. Mr. Scott said this anger “manifested itself in support for somebody from the outside.”

National party leaders in Washington have looked to the vote in South Carolina as a chance for one of Mr. Trump’s mainstream competitors to consolidate support, and perhaps to emerge as a consensus alternative to him.

Mr. Rubio, whose earlier efforts to rally the party behind him disintegrated after a catastrophic debate performance and a weak finish in New Hampshire, may be best positioned to become that candidate, gaining in the late polls here and brandishing Gov. Nikki R. Haley’s endorsement as an important trophy.

Taking to the campaign trail with Ms. Haley, an Indian-American, and Mr. Scott, who is black, Mr. Rubio sought subtly to turn the race into a choice between their image as a new face of the Republican Party and Mr. Trump’s brand of resentment politics.

Mr. Rubio’s nomination, Mr. Scott said, would represent a Republican “transition from the grand old party to the grand opportunity party.” Ms. Haley called the Rubio campaign a “Benetton commercial,” referring to the clothing chain known for advertisements showcasing diversity.

Mr. Rubio, however, shied away from a direct confrontation with Mr. Trump here, preferring first to eliminate Mr. Bush and weaken Mr. Cruz.

In South Carolina, Mr. Trump’s most immediate rivals spent as much time battering each other as they did going after him. Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz engaged in bitter combat, with Mr. Cruz attacking Mr. Rubio’s record on immigration, and Mr. Rubio repeatedly criticizing Mr. Cruz’s character and branding him a “liar.”

Even Mr. Bush, who confronted Mr. Trump in the most direct terms yet during the debate in Greenville last weekend, gradually turned his attention more toward Mr. Rubio, questioning the first-term senator’s depth of knowledge and qualifications to hold the presidency.

But as the race turned heated, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz appeared to bear much of the blame for the negativity: The two were seen as having run the most unfair campaigns, according to exit polls.

Jonathan Martin reported from Columbia, and Alexander Burns from New York.


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