Donald Trump better buckle up.
After his New Hampshire primary win and a new poll showing him continuing to lead in South Carolina, the New York billionaire will be the top target during Saturday’s Republican presidential debate in Greenville.
Trump’s Republican competitors are taking aim at him on the campaign trail in South Carolina.
“Is anybody here worried about the front-running candidate shouting out obscenities in front of children?” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked to loud applause from a crowd gathered at a faith-and-family forum Friday at Greenville’s Bob Jones University.
Some conservative groups also are asking voters to avoid Trump when they go to the S.C. polls Feb. 20.
The pro-life advocacy group Susan B. Anthony List, for example, said Trump cannot be trusted to keep his anti-abortion promises.
“What comes out of his heart should shame us all,” Marilyn Musgrave, a former Colorado congresswoman who works for the advocacy group, said at a news conference at Bob Jones.
Just before the pro-life group spoke, a leader of an advocacy group backing a religious freedom bill in Congress said Trump was not getting her support because he failed to say he would make that issue a priority in the first 100 days as president if elected. Three GOP presidential candidates — retired doctor Ben Carson, and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — backed the call from the American Principles Project to make the bill a top priority.
Asked if voters should support Trump, Maggie Gallagher, a senior fellow with Washington, D.C., organization, said, “I would not vote for the guy who said he would not lead on this issue.”
She added the 2016 race was about, “Who wants to run toward the lions and who can be pressured to walk away.”
An arm of the anti-tax Club for Growth also will start running TV ads Saturday in South Carolina questioning Trump’s credentials as a fiscal conservative.
The groups are trying to topple a candidate who has been the favorite in South Carolina since late July.
The latest poll, the first taken in the state since voting in the presidential race started Feb. 1, shows Trump’s lead has not changed much in the seven months since he became the front-runner. Trump leads Cruz of Texas by 16 percentage points among likely S.C. Republican primary voters, according to the Opinion Savvy poll released Friday.
Speaking on Trump’s behalf at the Bob Jones forum, Mark Burns, pastor at Harvest Praise & Worship Center in Easley, said candidates trying to paint the political novice as not being a true conservative are wrong, adding Christians would have a friend in the White House with Trump.
“Mr. Trump is a pro-life candidate,” Burns said as one audience member booed loudly. “He is a person who believes all lives are precious.
“You may have seen some rhetoric, some tone by other candidates, to make you believe that Mr. Trump is only a pro-life person just to win your votes. That is not true.”
Burns said Trump had an epiphany, changing his view on abortion. “Donald Trump is man who has the same values as you and I do,” he said.
When Burns said Trump is “pro-faith,” an audience member shouted back, “He’s profane!”
Burns replied he trusts Trump because he admits his mistakes.
“We all have said things we shouldn’t have said,” Burns said. “But the message of humility, the message of grace that says, ‘I can change my opinion. I can change my language. I can change how people view me ... what was once lost is now found.’ ”
Trump’s foes in the race are not so forgiving.
In a preview of Saturday’s debate, Cruz told reporters at the Bob Jones forum that Trump is not a true conservative, citing his reversal on the abortion issue and his support for eminent-domain seizures of private property.
“People are tired of campaign conservatives,” said Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of 2016. “They’re tired of candidates who have talked a good game but have not walked the walk.
“Donald Trump just recently said he can become anyone you want him to be,” Cruz said Friday. “You know what? The voters just want someone who’s telling them the truth.”
Trump’s strong support among evangelicals has baffled S.C. political and religious observers. Trump has been criticized for not asking God for forgiveness, his affairs and his use of profanity.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who helped moderate the Bob Jones forum, told reporters he has talked to evangelical friends who don’t think Trump will follow through on his promises, but they still support the reality-television star.
“They like him because he’s strange,” said Wilson, R-Lexington. “He’s different. He’s new. He’s exotic. He’s never been tried before. We’ve tried everything. ... I think they’re reaching for anything.”
Another friend said he liked Trump, a non-politician, because “he’s my middle finger to the establishment,” Wilson recounted.
Saturday’s Greenville debate could change the tide in the state, Wilson said. Rubio, R-Fla., fell to fifth place in New Hampshire after a poor debate performance just days before that state’s primary.
A debate performance also is credited with helping former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich upset Mitt Romney in the 2012 S.C. Republican primary. In that debate, Gingrich criticized the media, galvanizing Republicans.
The Greenville debate takes place a week before the Republican primary on Feb. 20.
“Even though Donald Trump is the front-runner, and he is presumptively going to be the winner in South Carolina, I believe, after what I saw four years ago, that any candidate can have just an absolutely brilliant night and steal the state away,” Wilson said. “I don’t think you have to attack Mr. Trump to win, though they may do that.”
S.C. GOP presidential debate
What the Republican candidates need to do during the 9 p.m. Saturday debate in Greenville, which airs on CBS:
Donald Trump: Look strong, while not being too much like a bully, when deflecting attacks designed to knock him from his front-runner status.
Ted Cruz: Find a good explanation for more accusations of dirty tricks by his campaign and persuade voters that he, not Trump, should be the top choice of religious voters.
Marco Rubio: Sound less scripted while finding a magic moment that deflects talk of his inexperience, erasing memories of New Hampshire.
Jeb Bush: Maintain the energy that he showed at the New Hampshire debate, considered his best performance of the campaign.
John Kasich: Get airtime when the front-runners bicker; demonstrate he can be a viable candidate in the South, where 10 primaries will be held over next two weeks.
Ben Carson: Generate any dynamic moment that can stop his poll numbers from dropping.