CHARLESTON, USA – White House hopefuls face their third test Saturday, February 20, when Republicans square off in South Carolina with Donald Trump enjoying a commanding lead, and Democrats battle in Nevada where Hillary Clinton is seeking a comeback.
As the race moves on, the two parties are on separate battlefields. In South Carolina, Republicans will vote in a primary, while in Nevada, Democrats will caucus – grouping themselves together by candidate to voice their support.
Trump is looking for a big symbolic win ahead of "Super Tuesday" – March 1, when about a dozen states will go to the polls, with a quarter of the nominating delegates up for grabs.
"It's crunch time, folks," Trump, 69, told voters at a North Charleston rally, his final pitch before the South Carolina primary.
The real estate billionaire finished second to Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa on February 1, but secured a commanding win in New Hampshire one week later. (READ: #USvote: Takeaways from New Hampshire)
Trump took no chances on Friday, urging all of his supporters to troop to the polls.
"I don't want your money," added Trump, who is self-funding his campaign. "We want your vote."
Trump – the onetime reality TV star who has upended the political landscape with his brash style and controversial comments on everything from Muslim immigrants to waterboarding – has his eye on a particular date: March 15.
After that day, many of the Republican primaries will be winner-takes-all in terms of delegates. If his five rivals are still in the race at that point, they will be splitting the anti-Trump vote – and increasing his chances of winning the nomination.
On the eve of the primary Trump led with about 28 percent of likely Republicans voters backing him, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
The ultra-conservative Cruz followed with 23 percent. Trailing were Senator Marco Rubio at 15 percent and former Florida governor Jeb Bush at 13 percent.
Rubio and Bush are under intense pressure to fare well Saturday, as is Ohio Governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign has struggled to gain traction.
The past week on the campaign trail has been nasty for Trump and Cruz.
Trump repeatedly called the Texas senator a liar, and his attorneys sent Cruz a cease and desist letter over an ad airing in South Carolina that uses a 1999 interview in which Trump said he was "very pro-choice" on abortion rights.
Trump has since changed his stance on the sensitive issue.
Clinton bets on immigration
To the west, Democrats were making their closing arguments in Nevada, land of the desert sun, for Saturday's caucuses.
The key issue is the minority vote: blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans make up roughly half of the state's population.
Clinton, who won by a hair in Iowa and lost big to rival Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, is counting on a major Hispanic voter turnout, especially among the hotel and casino employees in Las Vegas.
Since Wednesday, the former secretary of state, 68, has visited staff at Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand and the Paris casinos, in order to persuade them to join her camp.
The workers, who are generally not wealthy and very unionized, can "caucus" right on the Strip in Las Vegas, with sites at six casinos including Caesars Palace.
Clinton – seeking to be America's first female president – has presented herself as the natural ally of Latino families on the issue of immigration, promising a quick path to citizenship for those in the country illegally if she is elected.
The former first lady has relentlessly attacked the 74-year-old Vermont senator Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, for voting against immigration reform in 2007.
Sanders has defended himself by saying the 2007 law did not do enough to protect "guest workers," and that he voted in 2013 for an immigration reform bill, which never came to fruition due to Republican opposition in the House.
"As president, I will do everything that I can to pass immigration reform and a path toward citizenship for those who today are undocumented," he said Thursday, February 18, on MSNBC.
Clinton's line of attack is that Sanders is offering impractical, pie-in-the-sky ideas.
"My hope is that we can have a campaign about real issues," she said at a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada-Cheyenne Campus.
Clinton received a boost Friday, February 19, when she was endorsed by House Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina, the most senior African-American in Congress.
"When you add up everything, taking a look at the resumes, a look at the set of experiences, it was just clear to me that where we are in the country today, that Hillary Clinton... has all that I think is required to make a very good president," Clyburn told CNN.
Sanders's camp is nevertheless convinced that young minority voters will back him.
"Because of the momentum that Bernie has created with the win in New Hampshire and the tie in Iowa, we have been able to have the platform to speak to a broader audience, including the Latino community," Erika Andiola, a Sanders spokeswoman, told AFP in Las Vegas. – Michael Mathes, AFP/Rappler.com