Greenville, South Carolina (CNN) In one pocket of South Carolina on Thursday, Donald Trump invited a woman to stroke his golden hair. In another, Marco Rubio lectured students on eradicating poverty.
There’s only one slot for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, but there are two completely different campaigns taking place to claim it. On Thursday in the Southern early-primary state, they collided.
One is the chest-beating Donald Trump extravaganza, playing to packed houses as the billionaire tramples political rules and casts a spell over huge crowds with extended policy-free diatribes and boasts that he is out of sight in the polls.
The other involves the 16 other GOP presidential hopefuls who are gasping for media coverage and playing politics the old-fashioned way, building networks, convening small events and talking dry-as-dust policy.
There’s no doubt which approach is working best so far: Trump’s.
The real estate mogul’s unorthodox presidential effort has proven to be more viable and sustained than any pundit ever thought possible as he has harnessed the fury of grass-roots conservatives at the political lifers in Washington.
Established GOP stars such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his protégé Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had expected to be dueling for the top spot in the race. Instead, they are looking on in envy — and hoping that sooner or later conventional political logic will kick back in.
In the upstate city of Greenville, the traveling Trump circus touched down amid nearly as much hullabaloo as if the real estate mogul had already been elected president. TV stations live-streamed the landing of his 757 jet. A news helicopter tracked his SUV while it raced down the highway — as if Trump were O.J Simpson in a police pursuit.
About 1,400 Trump supporters had lined up for hours outside a vast conference center. When the doors opened, they stampeded into a cavernous auditorium, packed with candlelit tables for a Chamber of Commerce, luncheon.
Some 100 miles to the southeast, the traditional presidential contest was playing out, as Rubio wooed a room full of students at the University of South Carolina.
At the Chamber of Commerce event, Trump’s opening riff could hardly have been more bizarre. Brandishing a copy of The New York Times, he ridiculed a story that suggested he wore a toupee.
Then he pulled a woman out of the crowd and invited her to stroke his golden mane, and she confirmed that it did indeed appear genuine.
“Somebody’s got a very nice wife,” Trump commented, looking at the woman with appreciation as she stepped off the stage.
Broad strokes versus detail
It was a moment that not only summed up the surreal and unexpected twists of the Trump campaign, but also showcased his ability to get away with stunts and comments that would sink any normal politician.
Two hours later, in the state capital of Columbia, Rubio tried to fire up a curious crowd of students, which the campaign said numbered 900, practicing politics according to the traditional playbook.
He earnestly held forth on race relations, college debt, fighting poverty and intricate twists of U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s stump speech, in contrast, is largely a long list of self-tributes. He’s rich, famous and tough — and everyone else is weak. He lambasts everyone from the media to his GOP foes to Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Where Trump paints in broad strokes, Rubio is a details man, passionate about policy solutions about which he seems to have thought long and hard.
And unlike Trump, Rubio tries to put himself in his audience’s shoes.
“I was raised paycheck to paycheck … I feel passionate about how hard it is to raise a young family in the 21st century because I am doing it now. It’s hard,” he told the students.
And in an aside that might have been a subtle dig at Trump, he added: “If you don’t talk about what people are facing, if you never talk about what people are going through, they don’t believe you care about them.”
Trump, for his part, compared himself to royalty.
“Nobody played the game better than me. I was the king,” Trump boasted Thursday, laughing about how he manipulated politicians by funding their campaigns.
And again and again, Trump returned to his soaring poll numbers, singling out one Quinnipiac University poll showing him at 28% in the GOP race — 16 points ahead of anyone else. Rubio meanwhile can’t make it out of single figures in most national polls. Trump also touted a Monmouth Survey showing him at 30% in South Carolina. The Florida senator, playing the long game, had 6%.
“We have a chance to be truly great again. We have a chance to be as good as ever if not better, believe it or not,” Trump roared — repeating his mantra for the audience.
Making contact with conservatives
The most intriguing aspect of Trump’s stump speech is that he hits few conservative sweet spots. Though he rages against illegal immigration, he rarely talks about anti-abortion issues, cutting the deficit and taxes, religious freedom or shrinking government.
In fact, it seems as if he’s already launched the third-party campaign he keeps threatening — it just happens to be hosted by a bewildered Republican Party.
But his conservative apostasy went down successfully nevertheless.
Robert Heacock, a Trump supporter from Simpsonville, South Carolina, praised him for “saying things that are not politically correct.”
“He has kindled the spirits of people — that is the kind of message people want to hear, that we can regain some of the greatness we have lost,” said Heacock, adding that he hoped Trump would pick another outsider candidate, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as his running mate.
Longtime South Carolina political strategist Chip Felkel, meanwhile, marveled at Trump’s performance.
“I have never seen anything like it. I have been doing this since 1986. We are a low-information society and he is taking advantage of it 100%,” he said. “He is getting away with murder.”
But an hour-and-a-half southwest, Rick Arquell was won over by Rubio’s more relatable approach.
The Republican voter has seen both candidates live and doubts Trump’s long-term viability.
“I like Trump because I grew up in New York City — but he’s not a salable quality,” Arquell said, drawing an analogy between the mogul and the tea party revolt of 2009.
“Trump is the same — he just has a different label. This time, I don’t think it is enough. Trump will fade,” he assessed.
If Arquell and the other GOP candidates and establishment leaders who share his views are correct, normal political service may be resumed before primary and caucus voters go to the polls next year.
If not, and the Trump-led rise of outsider candidates endures for the long haul, the 2016 election is going to become even more unpredictable.