Politics & Policy

Rubio Leaves Crowd of Conservatives Unmoved in South Carolina Speech

(Richard Ellis/Getty)

Greenville, S.C. — Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential-campaign strategy assumes that he can overcome financial disadvantages by converting voters who see him in person.

At the South Carolina Freedom Summit on Saturday, that didn’t happen. “Rubio’s was one of the speeches that was not the best. His was not the worst, either, but, just kind of meh compared to anybody else,” says Hannah Hill, a tea-party activist from nearby Anderson County.

“He’s good by himself,” Cheryl Cuthrell, a Greenville County Republican activist who supports Senator Ted Cruz, says of Rubio. “But when you put him up to someone who just goes right back to the Constitution . . . I just don’t think Marco is going to be strong enough to knock him out.”

Those are uncharacteristically tame reviews of Rubio’s oratory. “He’s one of these [candidates] who can bring grown men to tears very quickly,” Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), the original tea-party hero, recently said.

RELATED: Scott Walker Targets Jeb Bush in South Carolina Speech

Saturday’s Freedom Summit had the makings of an important early bout in the Republican presidential primary campaign. Governor Scott Walker (R., Wis.) used the Iowa Freedom Summit in January as a springboard to the top tier of GOP hopefuls, but Rubio — who is regarded as analogous to Walker insofar as both men appeal to both establishment and activist Republicans — turned in a brief, low-key performance here, leaving Walker and Cruz to delight the activists.

“Cruz and Walker are head and shoulders above everybody else,” says John Steward, a North Carolina GOP district chairman who attended the event.

The audience made that clear from the outset. When Citizens United president David Bossie mentioned that the next speaker hailed from the state of Wisconsin, the audience at the Summit got the hint and started to cheer. When Bossie mentioned Texas during an introduction later in the day, the whistles started up again and continued when Cruz shook hands with attendees in the front row as his introductory music played. Rubio received a warm welcome but none of the same anticipatory applause. His cheers came later, when he told the military-heavy crowd how he planned to approach the fight against ISIS and other jihadists.

RELATED: Cruz: Not All Republicans Back Religious Liberty

Have you seen the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson?” Rubio asked, referring to the movie about a retired CIA agent whose daughter was kidnapped in France. “He has a line, and this is what our strategy should be: ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.’”

There was an early warning sign that Rubio might struggle to outshine his counterparts. When Bossie kicked off the event by introducing Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, he reminded the crowd of the former senator’s role in defeating immigration-reform legislation introduced by then–majority leader Harry Reid in 2007.

“You can forgive people for making one or two mistakes in politics, but when they make a mistake in the big things that you send them up there to put a stop to to begin with, people don’t tend to forget that.”

On the other hand, Representative Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), intentionally or not, may have prepared the audience to embrace Rubio when he offered his own suggestion for how they should select a presidential nominee. Mulvaney noted that young people and Hispanics constitute the largest and fastest-growing voting blocs in the country, respectively.

“Look around you in this room. Convincing you is not the issue,” he said, to murmurs of assent, including more than one “Amen.” “Who can convince somebody else?”

Even so, Rubio’s work on the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration bill remains a problem for conservative activists, despite his assurances that he’s learned they were right to oppose the legislation.

“You can forgive people for making one or two mistakes in politics, but when they make a mistake in the big things that you send them up there to put a stop to to begin with, people don’t tend to forget that,” says Hill. “They don’t forget it when you vote for TARP, they don’t forget it when you vote for the bailouts, and they don’t forget it when you vote for amnesty.”

#related#If any candidate has a political team that could restore him to the affections of South Carolina voters, it’s Rubio, who has some of the most experienced GOP operatives in the state on his team. J. Warren Tompkins, who was the chief strategist behind George W. Bush’s South Carolina primary win in 2000, is running a super PAC backing Rubio. Terry Sullivan, a former business partner to Tompkins, is running the campaign. Another Bush 2000 veteran from the state, Heath Thompson, is advising Rubio.

“They are smart and have lots of SC experience,” a rival South Carolina consultant concedes.

They didn’t approach this speech as a flag-planting event, though. An aide to Rubio told reporters before the event that he would focus chiefly on introducing himself to voters in his first trip to the state as a presidential candidate.

“I’ll be here a lot to ask for your vote,” Rubio promised. To win, he’ll need subsequent conversations to go better than this one.

More Coverage of the South Carolina Freedom Summit

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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