SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Donald Trump aimed to solidify his standing as the Republican presidential front-runner on Saturday as South Carolina voters cast their ballots after a week of fierce campaign exchanges in an increasingly caustic race.
The outcome could also have serious implications for more establishment-friendly candidates who are hoping for strong finishes to stave off questions about whether they should even continue.
Terrorism and the direction of the economy were among the top issues for GOP voters, according to exit polls. In a year of the angry voter, more than half in South Carolina said they felt betrayed by Republican politicians.
The survey also found that three-quarters of voters supported a temporary ban on Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the country, one of Trump's policies.
Trump has appeared confident as he's traveled the state this week, holding rallies and town halls that have drawn thousands.
"I actually think I know your state now better than you do. I have been all over the place for the last four days. I know every blade of grass I've flown over from here to there," he told a rally crowd in Sumter as he implored his supporters to get out and vote.
While the billionaire businessman scored a decisive win in New Hampshire, his second-place finish in Iowa to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz illustrated gaps in his less-than-robust ground operation, and questions remain about the extent to which he can translate leads in preference polls and large rally crowds into votes.
A win for Trump would answer them, adding momentum going into the collection of Southern states that will vote on March 1, giving him the chance to build an even bigger lead in the delegate count that will determine the nomination.
The election followed days of hostility between the campaigns and their allies at events, in television ads, automatic calls and mailers that have been flooding voters' mailboxes.
Trump added to the drama, spending the week threatening to sue Cruz, accusing former President George W. Bush of lying and sparring with Pope Francis over immigration.
At his final election-eve rally Friday night in North Charleston, Trump told the widely discredited story of Gen. John Pershing, who was said to have halted Muslim attacks in the Philippines in the early 1900s by shooting the rebels with bullets dipped in pigs' blood.
The outcome will also have high stakes for Trump's rivals, who are hoping to halt his momentum and establish themselves as the best-positioned alternatives to his unorthodox candidacy.
Cruz, whose socially conservative message has resonated with many of the state's religious voters, is banking on a much-touted get-out-the-vote operation to eke out a win or strong second-place finish.
The stakes are even higher for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, two establishment candidates who both hope the outcome will allow them to lock up the more traditional Republican voters they have been courting.
A less-than-third-place finish for Bush, who has deep family ties in the state and campaigned alongside his mother, the former first lady, and his brother, former President George W. Bush, would raise serious new questions about his campaign and increase pressure on him to drop out.
Bush told reporters outside a polling location in Greenville Saturday that "to be able to beat expectations would be helpful. I think we'll do that."
Meanwhile, John Kasich, who has been minimizing expectations in the state, has promised South Carolina voters he'll "keep hanging in there" regardless of the results
The polling of voters was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Ronayne in Columbia, South Carolina, and Alex Sanz in Greenville contributed to this report.