Fox News projects that Donald Trump is the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary, helping cement his front-runner status as the race shifts to a slew of delegate-rich contests. 
The victory is not by the double-digit margin that pre-election polls had suggested. Still, this makes back-to-back victories for Trump, who more than doubled the vote of his closest competitor in New Hampshire last week.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio remain locked in a battle for second place. 
With just 3 percent of precincts reporting, Cruz and Rubio each have 21 percent. Trump leads with 34 percent. 
Lagging far behind are the three remaining candidates – Ohio Gov. John Kasich, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, all of whom appear to be stuck in single digits. Their fate could hang in the balance Saturday night. 
South Carolina historically is a prized contest for Republican candidates, and has a knack for picking the eventual nominee – the primary winner has gone on to claim the nomination in every race since 1980, except for 2012 when Newt Gingrich won.
The state also has a reputation for bringing out bare-knuckle campaign tactics, and this year was no exception. Charges of dirty politics flew on all sides in the lead-up to Saturday’s primary, with robo-calls and misleading websites surfacing about the candidates. 
The race tightened in the final days, but not enough to shake Trump's long-time advantage there. 
Trump had enjoyed a 13-point lead in the latest average of pre-election polls by Real Clear Politics. Fox News exit polls indicate significant numbers of late-deciding voters ended up supporting Cruz and Rubio, causing both candidates to perform more strongly than pre-election polling suggested.
Trump, according to exit polls, was still the overwhelming favorite among voters who said they’re angry with the federal government. Cruz, though, had the edge among voters who said their top issue is terrorism. 
But of the three other candidates, only Kasich has made it onto the leaderboard in the last two contests. Bush and Carson have yet to place in the top three, and a shut-out in South Carolina could further dim their future prospects.
Still, Bush said Saturday he was "excited where we stand." 
Many voters said before the polls opened that they were still undecided, a development Bush called “interesting.”
The former Florida governor entered the 2016 presidential race as an early favorite, but has fallen in the polls steadily, despite having had a couple strong debate performances in recent weeks. Bush may need a third-place finish, if not better, in South Carolina to compete in the GOP contest next week in Nevada, then in the large number of states voting on March 1. 
Kasich, who placed second in New Hampshire, had low expectations in South Carolina. He is looking toward more moderate states that vote later in March.
Trump's victory, meanwhile, could foreshadow a solid performance in the collection of Southern states that vote on March 1. Victories in those Super Tuesday contests could put the billionaire in a commanding position in the delegate count, which determines the nomination.
Polls closed in South Carolina after the Democrats held caucuses earlier in the day in Nevada, where Hillary Clinton was projected the winner.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.