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After South Carolina, 5 men left in '3-man' race

Posted: 11:13 PM, Feb 20, 2016
Updated: 2016-02-21 04:36:10Z

Remember when the Republicans had 17 presidential candidates share one event for the first debate in Cleveland? Those days are long gone. The GOP race is starting to take shape after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush left the race Saturday night.

While Donald Trump won Saturday’s GOP primary in South Carolina with 32.5 percent of the vote, the real battle was for second place. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., edged fellow Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, by 2 percent according official results. Rubio’s performance in South Carolina marked his best of the first three party contests.

Cruz and Rubio are looking to be the alternative to Trump, as Trump is quickly becoming the GOP’s frontrunner.

Data curated by InsideGov

Trump won 44 of the 50 delegates up for grabs Saturday. He has 61 for the race, with Cruz trailing with 11 and Rubio with 10.

As the candidates prepare for a contest that is quickly turning from individual battles into a nationwide race, Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich could begin to appear as afterthoughts as both polled in the single digits Saturday.

To Rubio, the battle for the GOP presidential nomination has become a three-man race.

“After tonight, this has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination,” Rubio said.

In between now and then, there is a caucus in Nevada and a number of southern states up for grabs on March 1.

With Bush’s departure, questions surround how his former supporters will vote. Rubio and Bush were both largely considered mainstream conservatives, but Trump argued that he would continue to earn support as candidates leave the race.

“I was watching and it was amazing, some of the pundits said, ‘If a couple of the candidates drop out, you add their numbers together, it would equal Trump,’” he said. “These geniuses. They don’t understand that as they drop out, I am going to get some of those votes also.”

But as Cruz took the stage after a disappointing night when he was expected to have a strong second-place finish, he went after Trump’s electability. This comes after back-to-back contests where Cruz did not finish in the top two.

“I congratulate Donald on his victory tonight, but I’ll say this to the people of America, ‘If you don’t believe Donald Trump is the best candidate to run against Hillary Clinton in November, if you believe we need a strong contrast with the Democrats, then we welcome you aboard our team,’” Cruz told his supporters Saturday.

Data curated by InsideGov

Meanwhile, Kasich and Carson both said they are ready to look past South Carolina. Carson has a town hall scheduled for Reno, Nevada Sunday.  Kasich is looking past Nevada and is campaigning in Virginia. Virginia is among the Super Tuesday states.

Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk.  Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs  or on  Facebook .