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Nevada and South Carolina: Two more early stops on a very long journey

Analysis: Sanders faces a major viability test in Nevada while Trump sits atop a narrowing lead in South Carolina

Though two closely watched nominating contests come up Saturday, the presidential candidates are already looking further down the road and steeling themselves for the long haul.

The Democratic election in Nevada will test the breadth of Bernie Sanders’s appeal, and the South Carolina Republican primary may show if there are any cracks in Donald Trump’s armor. But neither vote on Saturday is likely to settle the bitter contests in the two major parties.

Nevada was originally considered part of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s “firewall,” — those primary states considered to have conditions favorable to the Clinton campaign and able to blunt rival Sanders’ momentum.

Nevada has a heavily Latino electorate, especially when compared to early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the 10 whitest states in the country. Sanders nearly tied with Clinton in Iowa and won handily in New Hampshire, but polls consistently show that he’s less popular than Clinton among black and Latino voters — two core demographic groups in the Democratic coalition.

Nonetheless, recent surveys indicate that the Nevada primary is a dead heat, suggesting that Sanders might be gaining currency with groups outside of his relatively white base. There are few reliable polls for this state primary, making the final outcome of Saturday’s vote unpredictable; but an overwhelming victory for Clinton now seems unlikely, meaning Sanders may hurtle through undaunted.

There’s less suspense about who will take first place in the GOP contest in South Carolina. Trump has commanded a substantial lead for months, though recent polls show Ted Cruz narrowing the chasm somewhat.

The real contest is over who emerges as the most credible anti-Trump. Cruz recently for the first time edged out Trump in a national poll. But among many Republican establishment figures, Cruz is not necessarily a more palatable alternative. Former Sen. Bob Dole, who endorsed Jeb Bush, has said that he hopes Marco Rubio finishes second in South Carolina. The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, has endorsed Rubio.

If Rubio delivers a strong showing in South Carolina, that could cement his status as the great hope for the Republican establishment. But pulling that off means overcoming hazards from all sides. Cruz sees the threat in his rearview mirror and has launched a volley of attack ads to deal with it. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush and John Kasich are both furiously trying to unseat Rubio as the establishment’s potential standard-bearer. However they fare in Saturday’s vote, the Republican contest for the nomination is expected to continue beyond South Carolina.

After Saturday, the parties will reverse locations: Republicans will vote in Nevada on Tuesday, and Democrats in South Carolina the following Saturday.

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