They yearned for clarity in New Hampshire. Marco Rubio hoped to crystallize his position as the Republican Party’s great presidential hope heading into the South Carolina primary. Jeb Bush intended to prove his political muscle could still be as powerful as his family name and donor fortune.
Bush and Rubio wound up in fourth and fifth place, respectively: Bush topped by another governor, John Kasich of Ohio, and Rubio undone by three minutes of woeful debating on national television. Their results Tuesday made it possible to survive, barely.
Now Bush and Rubio head to the first-in-the-South primary Feb. 20 still competing toe-to-toe with each other for the same spot — and there is, at best, only a single spot — in the GOP: to be the last man standing to confront front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, if someone can take them on at all.
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What comes next won’t be pretty.
The Rubio and Bush campaigns started taking aim at each other Tuesday night, each trying to make the case that their Floridian was in a better position for what could be a long race. Team Rubio pointed to the senator’s high favorable ratings in polls, which show he has potential to grow his popularity in coming states. Team Bush highlighted its large organization and loyal donors, who might have defected to Rubio if he hadn’t crashed in New Hampshire.
Rubio’s spokesman told CNN that Bush’s presence in the race would only benefit Trump. Bush’s spokesman told reporters if Rubio is concerned about Trump, he should follow Bush’s lead and take him on himself. And so it went — all before even three-quarters of the results had been tallied.
The candidates themselves each talked about a new day in the race: Bush because he got a second wind (or at least a breeze) and Rubio because he needs to pull off a comeback.
“My case will be about national security,” Bush told MSNBC, in a bid for South Carolina’s large group of military voters. He was stumping with a former rival-turned-supporter, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“Everybody running for president is gonna get knocked down eventually. The test of whether or not you can get up was passed today in New Hampshire,” Graham told reporters Tuesday in New Hampshire. “Now we’re up on our feet, and we’re gonna run in South Carolina.”
Rubio, facing the most immediate pressure, is also trying to show his resilience.
He cannot afford another poor showing in the upcoming debate Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina. He’ll at least no longer have to contend with the man who spliced him last Saturday: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who relentlessly exposed Rubio as being stuck to talking points, ended his campaign Wednesday after placing sixth in New Hampshire. (So did former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who came seventh.)
“The debate went the way it went and then just the media coverage over the last 72 hours was very negative,” Rubio told Fox News. “It made it very difficult for us to get any other message across.”
He also gave a lengthy news conference to reporters aboard his plane to South Carolina, sounding more open and less controlled than he had in a while, before campaigning with two of his own big-name state supporters, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy.
The way Bush has played up his South Carolina operation, he too has little room for error over the next 10 days. The former Florida governor has a headquarters in Columbia and three field offices, staffed with a total of 20 people. Going into Wednesday, Bush had held more events — 31 — than any of his rivals, his campaign said. It unveiled a radio ad Wednesday to complement an existing TV ad, both featuring former President George W. Bush, who remains popular among Palmetto State Republicans.
South Carolina is different from the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and not just because of the mercifully warmer weather (though it was unseasonably cold there Wednesday). Its electorate is relatively larger and more diverse, with more business types that comprise the GOP’s establishment wing. Unlike New Hampshire, independents can’t participate in the partisan primaries. (In an elections-calendar quirk, Feb. 20 is the South Carolina primary for Republicans only. Democrats hold their Nevada caucuses the same day. The Democratic South Carolina primary comes Feb. 23, followed by the Republican Nevada caucuses Feb. 27.)
Polls show outsider Trump holds a wide lead in South Carolina in spite of its establishment credibility. That should worry his competitors: New Hampshire proved that Trump not only matched but actually outperformed surveys in a state that did not require the same ground work as caucuses, where Trump lost to Cruz.
And Cruz shouldn’t be underestimated in South Carolina, or in a string of other southern primaries that come up March 1, Super Tuesday. He convincingly took Iowa, which was a must-win for his campaign, and ended up third in New Hampshire, after Trump and Kasich, despite having spent far fewer resources there than Bush or Rubio. The South puts Cruz once again in front of evangelicals who swung Iowa his way; he reiterated Wednesday that the GOP contest is a two-man race between himself and Trump.
Neither Bush nor Rubio are worried about Kasich, who lacks campaign organization outside of New Hampshire. But the two campaigns nevertheless disseminated opposition research about him, chiefly focused on Kasich’s positions — like expanding Medicaid under Obamacare — that are anathema to the political right.
But Kasich was in the state Wednesday, and his campaign manager pointed to states that vote after Super Tuesday, like Michigan, where a more moderate Republican could do well.
Left unsaid: The Michigan primary takes place March 15, the same day as voting in Ohio, Kasich’s home state and a key electoral prize.
The other major swing state with a primary that day that could benefit its favorite sons? Florida — assuming Bush and/or Rubio get that far.