Saturday night’s four nominating contests provided little clarity as to who has the edge in the race for the Republican nomination. But at the end of the night one thing was clear: It was a bad night for Marco Rubio.
Ten days before the Florida primary — the most important contest of the primary season for him — Rubio finished poorly across the board. Coming on the heels of a disappointing Super Tuesday, this lent ammunition to his opponents’ contention that the establishment spoke too soon in anointing him the best challenger to take on Donald Trump.
Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maine all held nominating contests Saturday. Ted Cruz handily won the Kansas and Maine caucuses. Donald Trump beat out Cruz for narrow wins in the Louisiana primary and the Kentucky caucuses. In all of those contests, Rubio was a distant third — except in Maine, where he came in a distant fourth, behind John Kasich. In Louisiana and Maine, Rubio finished so far behind that he failed to meet the threshold necessary to receive any delegates at all.
To be sure, these four states were not expected to be Rubio strongholds. But he fell short even in areas where he ought to have done well. Kansas Republicans, for instance, expected that Rubio would win in Johnson County, the area around Kansas City. Instead, Cruz bested him there nearly two to one — 42 percent to 22 percent. Maine Republicans predicted that Rubio would finish behind Trump and Cruz in the state, but they expected him to perform more strongly in the Portland area. Instead, he finished in fourth place in the Portland-area caucus, trailing Cruz, Trump, and Kasich.
Rubio fell short even in areas where he ought to have done well.
It’s the third night this week that headlines have proclaimed a disappointing night for Rubio. On Super Tuesday, he fell to Trump and Cruz in all but one state: Minnesota. On Thursday, he had a disappointing debate performance: Hoarse and fighting the flu, he climbed down into the mud pit to fight with Trump, and did not always emerge the victor. He earned criticism for contributing to the mayhem and was outshone by both Cruz and Kasich, who came off, by comparison, as the adults on the stage.
Saturday’s results showed clear evidence of a precipitous slide for Rubio in the wake of the debate: Per FiveThirtyEight, Rubio took 20.1 percent of the early vote in Louisiana. On primary day, he won just 9.4 percent of the vote.
But it’s going to take some heavy lifting on his part to make that happen. Public polling over the past month has put Trump ahead of Rubio by at least 16 points. A Tarrance Group poll conducted for Our Principles PAC, the anti-Trump effort that has sprung to life in the past week, showed a closer race: Trump with 35 percent, and Rubio with 30.
And Rubio cannot afford to head into that contest with questions lingering about whether he is really the best one to take on Trump. Cruz’s campaign on Friday declared its intention to compete in Florida. And the Texas senator can make a credible case to be the better alternative to Trump: He beat Trump handily in two races on Saturday, and held him to close margins in two others. He had already beaten Trump in four other states; Rubio has beaten Trump only once.
Even harsh critics of the Texas senator have started to entertain the possibility that he could be the best choice to take on Trump. Lindsey Graham, who joked last week that Cruz was so disliked in the Senate that if he were murdered on the Senate floor, the Senate wouldn’t convict his killer, said publicly on Super Tuesday that the GOP might need to rally around him. Later in the week, the two spoke on the phone.
What’s more, on the same day as the Florida primary, Ohio will also award its 66 delegates to the winner of its primary. If Kasich wins his home state and Rubio does not win his, Kasich, too, could make a credible case as a contender.
Despite the results, the Rubio campaign claimed a good night.
“I feel great — my whole team is celebrating. Twelve hours ago everyone was saying that Trump was going to run away with this. But he’s not. Cruz held his own in the rural caucuses and Trump underperformed elsewhere. Starting tomorrow the map gets better for us,” e-mails Rubio communications director Alex Conant.
“Only two more caucuses (Hawaii and Utah) and then lots of states that look more like Minnesota and Virginia than Louisiana and Alabama moving forward. We are going to win Florida and have the map, momentum, and money working in our favor moving forward,” he says.
To be sure, there are three days of nominating contests between now and Florida, during which Rubio could hope to make up some ground. Puerto Rico, where Rubio spent his evening Saturday, votes Sunday; Michigan, Idaho, Hawaii, and Mississippi vote Tuesday; and Washington, D.C., and Guam vote on March 12.
And he’ll have help: For the first time, courtesy of Our Principles PAC, there is a serious and well-financed effort to hit Donald Trump on the airwaves.
But over the next ten days he needs to do something to arrest the narrative that he is slipping. Otherwise, Republicans hoping to take down Trump may be looking for a new champion.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.