ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The presidential race is barreling along with Super Tuesday just three days away and candidates in both parties crisscrossing a dozen states in search of votes. But first, Democrats are holding their primary today in South Carolina. And the Republican Party is sorting out how to deal with an ever-stronger Donald Trump, one day after he picked up the support of former candidate in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. We want to talk through the state of play on both sides in the race. NPR's Tamara Keith is on the line from Columbia, S.C. Welcome, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.
WESTERVELT: We also have NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro joining us. Thank you both. Domenico, let's start with you. The GOP race is getting pretty nasty, especially between Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: It sure is.
WESTERVELT: Let's take a listen to some of the insults they hurled at each other today, all stemming from how they looked during recent debates.
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MARCO RUBIO: The guy with the worst spray-tan in America is attacking me for putting on makeup. Donald Trump likes to sue people. He should sue whoever did that to his face.
DONALD TRUMP: I see him starting to sweat. Thank God he has really large ears - the biggest ears I've ever seen - because they were protecting him. It was going - I have never seen any human being sweat like this guy.
WESTERVELT: Wow, liar and con-artist were some of the other insults. What's going on here?
MONTANARO: Thank goodness no one can see us right now. Who knows? Goodness. It's a race to the bottom of the barrel of insults, frankly. But this is a deliberate attempt by Marco Rubio and his campaign to get under Trump's skin, you know, to try and make him look somewhat un-presidential, if he even can. I mean, he's got to try to push him to the point of saying something that would even be too far for him or at least fire up all of the people in the Republican Party who Rubio and his campaign think are appalled by Trump and hope to fire them up.
WESTERVELT: Meantime, the Republican establishment has frantically tried, and so far failed, Domenico, to halt Trump's progress. Are those establishment leaders in a kind of panic mode?
MONTANARO: Some are in a panic mode and some are heading toward acceptance. It's really a difficult position for all of them to be in. They've held meetings; they've tried to think of what could be done; there's been a Super PAC devoted to attacking Donald Trump. None of it has stinted his progress.
WESTERVELT: And, Tam, Hillary Clinton is feeling pretty confident there in South Carolina today. How much would a big win tonight help her?
KEITH: And I think the only question is, here, the margin by which she wins. And I think what it does is it continues the momentum that she finally picked up in Nevada. And it also shows that she can win - assuming she does win - with African-American voters. And African-Americans are a critical part of the Democratic base. They are reliable Democratic voters, especially African-American women. And those are the people who she's doing best with. You know, I was out at a polling place talking to voters and talked to a number of African-American voters who say that she's strong, that she's been through a lot - that they just feel like she gets them and is with them. And then I also talked to voters who say that they're supporting Bernie Sanders. Those voters were universally younger.
WESTERVELT: And Bernie Sanders has already South Carolina. He's campaigning in Texas and Minnesota, two Super Tuesday states. Tam, what does he have to do Tuesday to regain momentum?
KEITH: Well, he has to win some stuff. And he also has pick up delegates. He has sort of a targeted list of states that - especially states that have caucuses, so Colorado and Minnesota. Vermont is his home state. He obviously needs to win Vermont. But he also needs some surprising wins - maybe pick up Oklahoma, for instance. He needs to show that he can win outside of overwhelmingly white northern states.
WESTERVELT: Domenico, we're still far from the end of this. By Super Tuesday, only about a quarter of the voting will be done. So how much is really at stake for each side of over the next few days?
MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, so far only 5 percent or less of the delegates have been allocated on either side, but think of the early states as, like, the kid's snowball, you know, at the top the mountain. Super Tuesday is the steepest part of the slope. You know, we're going to wind up with about a quarter of the delegates, a little bit more on the Republican side. The race certainly won't be over mathematically Super Tuesday on either side. But by the end of March, half of the Democratic delegates will be allocated, two-thirds of Republicans. So certainly the momentum is all on that way. You know, March is my favorite time of year because of college basketball. But March Madness isn't just for college basketball this year.
WESTERVELT: The madness is on the trail as well. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro, NPR's Tamara Keith on the campaign trail in South Carolina. Thanks so much.
KEITH: You're welcome.
MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.