A Fight in the Trenches Between South Carolina and Nevada

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 8.17.54 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Good Tuesday morning. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court may seem to have brought a new sense of discord and urgency to the presidential race. But it has already had plenty of both, as the battle for votes in the next two states on the nominating calendar is a mix of several separate and pre-existing fights.

As the race for the South Carolina Republican primary winds down to the final five days, it has become a fight for the soul of the party — between Donald J. Trump and the party’s last president, George W. Bush. The fight for votes, however, is between Mr. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, with Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio right behind them.

Depending on who is asked, the race is either holding steady with Mr. Trump on top, or is now more fluid after Mr. Trump criticized the former president and his administration at the Republican debate on Saturday, saying that “they lied” about the rationale for invading Iraq in 2003. Mr. Cruz and the “super PACs” supporting him have criticized him for this line of attack and are doing everything they can to erode faith in Mr. Trump and to exacerbate doubts in those who are considering him, pointing not just to remarks from the distant past but to more recent ones.

Several states away in Nevada, Republicans will caucus a week from Tuesday, and the Democrats will caucus on Saturday. Mr. Trump should theoretically fare well in the state, where he owns property and where his involvement with casinos is not a liability. But the state’s contest, a caucus, will test Mr. Trump’s organizational strength, and a super PAC supporting Mr. Cruz is increasing its staff there to bolster the senator’s campaign on the ground, and Mr. Cruz was recently endorsed by the Nevada attorney general.

On the Democratic side in Nevada, Hillary Clinton has been fending off a stronger-than-expected challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a state she won in 2008. In an attempt to lower the expectations around Mrs. Clinton’s performance, her aides have said that caucuses in Nevada would resemble the ones in Iowa. But Nevada is far less white than Iowa is, and that fact helped the state’s officials fight for its place in the early-state lineup. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, was irritated by the remark, according to a person familiar with his thinking, who also said that irritation had somewhat abated. But Mrs. Clinton is leaving nothing to chance, and in an interview with Jon Ralston that aired on Monday, she brushed her own staff’s explanations aside.

But there is a lot that can happen between now and Saturday, both in Nevada and in South Carolina.