Coming into South Carolina the Rubio camp was on life support. Their strong third place showing in Iowa at the start of the month had surprised and excited donors and the media. But their dismal fifth place showing in New Hampshire all but seemed to mark them as dead in the water.
But, word of Rubio’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. The candidate has rebounded strongly and showed off in a recent debate while he might be green and still a bit robotic he knows his policy. His appeal to the particular demographics of South Carolina also works in his favor.
Rubio’s been aided by events he cannot control of course. Bush’s fourth place showing in New Hampshire did not exceed expectations and John Kasich’s 2nd place showing kept others from picking up steam. Kasich is a fine moderate Republican, but he just does not have the flash or roots in South Carolina to play. Cruz, who is in a battle for second place with Rubio has been unable to get above 25 percent and Trump sits at an unimpressive 35 percent plurality.
Indeed, on the stump Rubio seems reinvented. Instead of simply talking endlessly about Obama transforming the country he is openly talking about his faith (something he did well in Iowa but downplayed in secular New Hampshire). In addition, Rubio is actively discussing his favorite topic, military spending, and how he wants to see it beefed up.
Whereas Trump and Cruz are both playing to the party’s biggest wings, blue-collar voters and evangelicals, Rubio gets some support from each of these groups and is starting to actively eat into Bush’s support among the state’s business community.
Perhaps no endorsement better encapsulates Rubio’s comeback than the endorsement he received yesterday from none other than South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Haley had probably already been leaning toward Rubio but Kasich and Bush were both in the mix. Rubio’s rhetoric, combined with his background and pushing of certain issues probably put him over the top. Keep in mind as well that Haley had all but publicly rebuked the rhetoric of Donald Trump in her response to the SOTU speech last month.
It’s unclear exactly how much pull a Haley endorsement has. It definitely hurts Bush and Kasich among the state’s business wing but how much is unclear. Considering Cruz and Rubio are running neck and neck in most polls a few percentage points could spell the difference between 2nd and 3rd. If Rubio keeps eating into Cruz’s evangelical support then he could easily challenge Trump for first, especially if undecided voters move decisively to him in the end.
A Rubio victory does not mean Kasich or Bush will drop out. But it does mean the air will be taken out of their campaigns right before the Nevada Caucus (where Rubio has a strong organization) and SEC Primary, long viewed as favorable to Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
Just as the Democratic primary is heating up so is the GOP contest.