Clinton wins Nevada caucuses; all eyes on Trump in S. Carolina

CHARLESTON, S.C., United States -- This could be the day everyone starts using the F-word to describe Donald Trump. And that people feel safer using it again to describe Hillary Clinton.

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Frontrunner.

Voters cast ballots Saturday in two races that could shape the U.S. presidential primaries leading into Super Tuesday -- Republicans voted in South Carolina, and Democrats in Nevada.

Clinton staved off what would have been a devastating loss to Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator who has put up a surprisingly strong challenge and threatens to eclipse her.

The former secretary of state clung to a four-percentage-point lead in the initial results in Nevada -- not nearly the advantage she once had in polls, but perhaps enough to quash talk of a campaign death-spiral.

"To everyone who turned out in every corner of Nevada with determination and heart: This is your win," Clinton tweeted.

"Thank you."

Results for Republicans were expected later in the evening.

Victory by Trump could make him the clear Republican frontrunner, by historical standards: Nobody in the modern era has won New Hampshire and South Carolina, then gone on to lose.

He expressed awareness in his last campaign rally that winning isn't the only thing that matters. The vote totals for each candidate will also set the stage for March 1, when 12 states vote in Super Tuesday. Trump urged supporters not to take for granted his lead in South Carolina surveys, and asked every single one of them to get out and vote.

"The more we can win by, the bigger the mandate, the better it is," he said.

To everyone who turned out in every corner of Nevada with determination and heart: This is your win. Thank you. -H

— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 20, 2016

The feeling is mutual, Nevada. pic.twitter.com/Z32JkpNKAp

— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 20, 2016

Republicans will be watching the results closely, at a stage in the race where major candidates start dropping out and donors and supporters must decide whom to back.

The most important outcome in South Carolina could involve the fourth- and fifth-place Republican positions. If candidates like John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio keep it close enough, it's more likely they'll remain in the race -- which could keep the anti-Trump vote fragmented, with Trump benefiting from the split.

Pressure is mounting from donors and the party establishment for also-rans to drop out, so that the party brass can rally around a more mainstream candidate who could defeat Trump and firebrand conservative Ted Cruz.

Rubio has already begun forecasting brightened prospects for himself as others drop out.

"It's a very crowded field," he told NBC. "Now you have six people... I think once you get this race down to two, three or four people you're going to have a much more traditional campaign."

He also criticized recent language from Trump.

The New York billionaire appears to have mastered one of the less-charming traditions of campaigning in South Carolina: racial dog-whistling.

Trump's whistles, however, were at a low-enough frequency for any human to understand.

Trump tweeted an observation Saturday that perhaps the reason President Barack Obama isn't attending the funeral of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is because it's not being held in a Muslim mosque.

This was after he delivered a speech the previous night where he recited an urban legend: about a U.S. general scaring off a Muslim insurgency by killing 49 Muslims with bullets dipped in pig's blood -- then telling the 50th to warn his friends.

The story appears to be, at best, a drastically embellished combination of two other tales from the early 20th century -- and at worst a complete fabrication, the equivalent of an Internet chain letter being aired from the podium of a U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump also defended torture in his final campaign speech Friday.

He called waterboarding "minor, minor, minor" torture -- and when describing how he felt about the now-abandoned tactic he said, "I feel great about it."

Rubio reacted to the pig's-blood story.

"I'm sure people were offended. I hope people were offended by that. That's not what the United States is about. It's doubtful whether that even happened," he said. "We're in a very weird year here... People are saying whatever they want in politics today and there seems to be no accountability."

He said the presidency is a serious job and it's time to start talking about serious things -- not the "circus."

On the Democratic side, Clinton survived a big scare.

A loss here would have been more worrisome for her than the rout she suffered in New Hampshire, because this state is more ethnically diverse -- with more minority voters, who are supposedly Clinton's firewall against the Sanders surge.

Nevada's best-known political analyst offered his own view of the stakes.

"Forget polls," Jon Ralston tweeted. "Pretty simple: If (Clinton) loses diverse (Nevada) after having (a) great organization, all major endorsements, huge last-minute blitz, very ominous."

Clinton retains a big lead with African-American voters and is expected to win next week in South Carolina and other southeastern states on March 1.

But until recently she also had a huge lead in Nevada, which has a large Latino population -- and that essentially disappeared.



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