MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (AP) — The Republican battle for South Carolina turned deeply personal on the eve of Saturday's presidential primary, as front-runner Donald Trump eyed a delegate sweep and his rivals fought for a southern surprise.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a pastor, evoked "the body of Christ" while fending off allegations of campaign misconduct in a state where most Republicans identify as evangelical Christians.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich opened up about the death of his parents. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush turned to his mother to help revive his underdog campaign.
Kasich, Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are competing to emerge as the leading alternative to the maverick businessman Trump and the deeply conservative Cruz. Any of those three are thought to have a better chance than Trump or Cruz in the November general election against the eventual Democratic nominee.
For Republicans, 50 delegates are up for grabs in the South Carolina primary contest — a fraction of the 1,237 needed to win the nomination. Candidates were also looking for some badly needed momentum heading into the next phase of the campaign: March 1's Super Tuesday, when residents of several states vote in their primary elections.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took one of her toughest shots at rival Bernie Sanders, questioning the long-time independent's devotion to the party he's running to lead.
Clinton accused Sanders of attacking the two most recent Democratic presidents — President Barack Obama and her husband, former President Bill Clinton — both of whom remain popular political figures among Democratic voters.
On Friday, Clinton won the endorsement of Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's top Democrat. He said Friday "my heart has always been with Hillary Clinton," a sharp departure from eight years ago when former President Clinton called him on the phone at 2:15 a.m. after his wife lost the 2008 South Carolina primary against Barack Obama.
The next contest for the Democrats will take place Saturday in Nevada. Clinton is hoping minorities and unions in Las Vegas give her the edge over Sanders, while the Vermont democratic socialist aims to drive up turnout in the state's more lightly populated northern region to claim victory.
Clinton is hoping a win in Nevada's caucuses would be a springboard into the Democratic primary race in South Carolina on Feb. 27 and a slate of Southern primaries on Super Tuesday, where she's favored because of her strength among African-Americans.
Trump appeared to hold a commanding lead less than 24 hours before voting began in South Carolina. With a big win, the undisputed Republican front-runner could take home most, if not all, of the state's 50 delegates. Such a victory would mark a particularly painful blow to Cruz, whose focus on Christian values and southern roots should have given him a distinct advantage.
Trump's campaign continued trying to brush off an extraordinary criticism from Pope Francis the day before. When asked about Trump's call to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church said those who seek to build walls instead of bridges are "not Christian." The pope was returning home from a visit to Mexico and the border.
Trump called the Pope's words "disgraceful" on Thursday but offered a distinctly softer jab on Friday.
"Yesterday, the Pope was great," Trump told an audience. "They had him convinced that illegal immigration was like a wonderful thing."
Cruz tried to take advantage of the spat by highlighting his own religious devotion.
"Every minute that you're not on the phone calling friends and loved ones, spend beseeching God, praying for this country, that this spirit of revival that is sweeping this country continue and grow, and that we awaken the body of Christ," the Texas senator said.
Meanwhile, his campaign faced new questions about a website it created this week attacking Rubio's record. The site features a photo of Rubio shaking hands with President Barack Obama. Cruz's campaign acknowledged that the photo was manufactured using a computer program.
Meanwhile, the lesser-known Kasich continued to highlight his compassionate side. In a television ad broadcast across the state, he spoke of his parents' deaths at the hands of a drunk driver.
"I was transformed. I discovered my purpose by discovering the Lord," Kasich says in the ad.
The personal and religious appeals come in a state where religious conservatives typically play an outsized role. In South Carolina's 2012 Republican primary election, two-thirds of the voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christian.