Marco Rubio’s endorsement by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, while obviously great news for his campaign, also raises the stakes for him in South Carolina. Rubio is currently in a tight race with Ted Cruz for 2nd place in that state, while attempting to fight off establishment challenges from Jeb Bush and John Kasich. (Cruz got his own good news today, when, for the first time since the campaign began, a major national poll had him leading the GOP field)
With the addition of Haley’s endorsement, certainly the most sought-after in South Carolina, (her approval rating among GOP voters there is 81%), Rubio now has endorsements from South Carolina’s three most popular GOP politicians. (he already had Senator Tim Scott and Congressman Trey Gowdy– Jeb Bush has the Endorsement of Senator Lindsey Graham). Rubio also had a strong debate performance that erased some of the unpleasant memories of New Hampshire.
If Rubio finishes a strong second here, or manages to win in an upset, he has a chance to consolidate his support in the establishment lane as the preferred alternative to Trump and Cruz. However, if he finishes third or worse, he may have a long-term problem. Certainly, if Bush or Kasich beats Rubio, his unexpected fall would be a story. But if Rubio, with substantial organization and spending in SC, and the top three endorsements in the state, cannot beat Cruz here, it would be a major blow to his campaign.At that point he will have lost three consecutive races to Trump and Cruz with only Nevada standing between him and the Southern primaries March 1st, where Cruz has put the majority of his organizing muscle while other candidates spent big in early states.
South Carolina is looking increasingly critical for Rubio to prove he can be a leading candidate in the race. With Haley’s endorsement, he has helped his chances of doing that, but he’s also increased the risk if he disappoints.