Charleston, S.C. – What a difference one week makes.
Last Wednesday, following an embarrassing fifth-place showing in New Hampshire, Marco Rubio was on the ropes. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were heading into South Carolina as firm first- and second-place favorites; John Kasich had emerged as a viable option for establishment voters; and Jeb Bush was suddenly resurgent thanks to finishing ahead of Rubio.
This Wednesday, Rubio was endorsed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, capping a four-day stretch in which the left-for-dead senator successfully crafted a “comeback kid” narrative. Rubio’s rebound began with a strong debate Saturday. Public and private polling since has shown him surging here. He appears looser and sharper on the stump than ever before. And now he has the support of South Carolina’s trio of young, next-generation, rock-star Republicans: Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy.
Yet there’s a definite downside to all this sudden talk of “Marcomentum” — and it didn’t take long for Cruz’s campaign to point it out. Politico’s Shane Goldmacher reports:
“If he doesn’t finish first, this is a massive loss,” Jason Miller, a senior Cruz adviser, said hours after news reports began circulating that Haley would endorse Rubio at a rally Wednesday evening. “Rubio has to win here.”
“He has the very popular sitting governor, very popular junior senator, very popular upstate congressman. He has every favorable position going for him that he could ever hope to have,” Miller said of Rubio. “If Rubio can’t win here, under these favorable circumstances, where can he win?”
This is smart spin, aimed at inflating Rubio’s expectations in the run-up to Saturday’s primary. It’s also an entirely fair observation.
Rubio’s team insists they are focused on winning a long-term delegate fight against Trump and Cruz. Yet both of those candidates have already notched wins. Sooner or later, to sustain the perception of viability, Rubio will need to win somewhere. And it’s not unreasonable to ask, as Miller did: If Rubio can’t win here, with most of the state’s Republican apparatus supporting him, where can he?
The danger for Rubio isn’t that he flops without a first-place showing here. South Carolina, at this early stage and with six candidates still alive, isn’t a must-win for anyone. But with Haley now on board, and the wind clearly at his back, Rubio would be devastated by finishing behind Cruz. That’s the scenario Cruz’s campaign — which is deceptively strong on the ground here — is teeing up as the media seizes on the narrative of Rubio’s rise. (Polls showed the two senators battling for second place behind Trump prior to Haley’s endorsement.)
To be clear: Rubio’s expectations are rightfully high here not just because he has these three influential state Republicans in his corner, but because his campaign has deep roots in South Carolina and always viewed it as Rubio’s best chance to score an early-state victory.
Last May, I reported an article in National Journal magazine entitled, “South Carolina is Marco Rubio’s State to Lose.” The gist:
In the six years since launching his Florida Senate campaign, Rubio has become an adopted prince of South Carolina’s political royalty. And not by chance. Rubio, whose national ambitions became apparent even before he was sworn into the Senate, quickly identified South Carolina as the home base for his eventual presidential effort, seeing this early-primary state as a more natural fit — culturally, ideologically, geographically — than either Iowa or New Hampshire. He has acted accordingly in the years since — snatching up the state’s top talent for his political operation, cultivating personal relationships with influential people on the ground, and making repeated trips to keep tabs on his burgeoning circuit of supporters in the state.
As a result, Rubio has quietly achieved something in South Carolina that no Republican candidate can claim in Iowa or New Hampshire: an organizational lock on one of the most important states en route to the GOP nomination.
“Senator Rubio has put together a first-class team,” says Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina GOP. “Politics is all about institutional knowledge, and Senator Rubio’s team has decades if not centuries of institutional knowledge in South Carolina politics. They understand what motivates voters, how races have been won here in the past, and how races might be won here in the future.”
That story detailed the fact that most of Rubio’s key allies — campaign manager Terry Sullivan, senior strategist Heath Thompson, pollster Whit Ayres and super PAC director Warren Tomkins, to name a few — are South Carolina veterans. They possess, as Moore said, unrivaled “institutional knowledge” about the state’s electorate, and have spent the past year erecting a firewall here in the event Rubio could not break through in Iowa or New Hampshire.
This organizational edge, designed to absorb and maximize the type of momentum Rubio now has thanks to high-profile endorsements from Haley, Scott and Gowdy, would in any other election cycle make him the favorite to win South Carolina. Instead, because of Trump’s persistently high floor and his own recent collapse in New Hampshire, Rubio’s team arrived here spinning a potential third-place finish. In fact, hours before Haley’s endorsement, a reporter asked Rubio about Scott’s “bold” prediction that he would finish ahead of Bush in South Carolina.
These were Rubio’s expectations as of Wednesday morning. By the evening — thanks to Haley, and with an assist to Cruz’s campaign — they were much, much higher.