The reckoning for Miami’s two fierce presidential rivals came Saturday in South Carolina.
Jeb Bush crashed out of the Republican primary, finishing so far behind in the state that helped make his father and brother president that the former Florida governor could no longer carry on.
And Marco Rubio, by trailing only winner Donald Trump and surmounting Ted Cruz, seized his role as the GOP’s establishment favorite.
“Tonight, here in South Carolina, the message is pretty clear: This country is now ready for a new generation of conservatives to guide us into the 21st century,” Rubio told a raucous Columbia audience. “The 21st century conservative movement is the son of a bartender and a maid from Cuba, who tonight stands one step closer to being the 45th president of the United States of America.”
Rubio’s second-place finish, after being neck-and-neck with Cruz for most of the night, counted as a relative victory, even if the Florida senator — unlike Cruz and Trump — has yet to notch a single electoral win.
Rubio had hoped Bush or Ohio Gov. John Kasich would end their bids after the New Hampshire primary 10 days ago. Instead, it was Rubio who flailed there, finishing a disappointing fifth behind Trump, Cruz, Kasich and Bush.
That meant Rubio entered South Carolina again needing a poor Bush or Kasich showing, in order to solidify mainstream Republican support. He got both: Bush and Kasich were locked in a fight for fourth place — acceptable for Kasich, who hadn’t invested much in South Carolina, but devastating for Bush.
“I committed that I would campaign as I would serve, going everywhere, speaking to everyone, keeping my word, facing the issues without flinching and staying true to what I believe,” Bush told supporters as he acknowledged the inevitable. “For better part of a year I endeavored to do just exactly that. I put forth a vision for America that includes all, because our country deserves a president for everyone.”
He mentioned no one else, but seemingly referred to Trump, his foe, saying the “country deserves a president for everyone.”
“The presidency is bigger than any one person,” he said. “It is certainly bigger than any candidate.”
Bush’s voice caught immediately after he announced his campaign’s suspension. The modest crowd of Bush loyalists at the downtown Columbia Hilton — many from Miami and Tallahassee — stepped in to save him. “We love you, Jeb!” a man yelled, beginning a round of applause and chants of “Jeb!” A few people cried, and there were many hugs, but no one seemed shocked.
Bush finished sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, and couldn’t continue without a strong night in South Carolina. He was already relying on a super PAC, Right to Rise USA, to fund his television ads. Right to Rise reported Saturday it raised only about $378,000 in January, though it still had about $24 million left in the bank.
“Thank you for running a race for the presidency that we can all be proud of,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former Bush presidential rival, said before Bush took the stage.
While Rubio will travel triumphantly to Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses, Bush returned Saturday night to Miami, his juggernaut of a campaign destroyed by the unexpected force of a reality-TV star and the prescient boldness of a political protégé.
“I have incredible affection and admiration, not just for Gov. Bush but for his family, and for their service to our country,” Rubio said. “I pray that his service to our country has not yet ended.”
Rubio swiftly rebounded after New Hampshire, candidly admitting he erred in repeating prepared lines in a debate. He opened up for casual interviews with national media outlets, which helped reintroduce him to the South Carolina electorate, and let go of a somber tone he had briefly adopted to go toe-to-toe with Trump and Cruz.
Trump’s win reinforced his lead for the nomination, which historically has gone to the candidate who, like Trump, took first place in both early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“Let’s put this thing away!” he shouted to supporters in Spartanburg. He congratulated Rubio and Cruz, and added, in a rare moment on introspection: "There's nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you. It's tough. It's nasty. It's vicious. It's beautiful."
He was so far ahead in South Carolina that media outlets projects Trump’s victory a mere half hour after polls closed.
The wide margin is significant because it could mean all of South Carolina’s delegates to the GOP nominating convention go to Trump. The state awards delegates to the statewide winner (Trump) as well as the winner in each congressional district (likely also Trump).
At some point, Rubio will have to win somewhere to mount a legitimate Trump challenge.
What mattered to Rubio on Saturday, though, was shedding competitors — particularly Bush, whose financial donors the Rubio camp has been courting for weeks ahead of the former Florida governor’s looming downfall.
Rubio barnstormed South Carolina in the final campaign with a peppy message and the upbeat company of local GOP stars Gov. Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, and Sen. Tim Scott, who is African-American.
“Who cares what somebody wanted to do 72 hours ago?” he told NBC News’ Today show in a Saturday morning interview, appealing to last-minute deciders who might have been swayed by Haley’s late support.
Some voters said in the waning days of the campaign that they were giving Rubio a look in part because of Haley, whose backing had also been sought by Bush.
Julie Thornton, , a 55-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative who was at a Daniel Island precinct Bush visited Saturday, stopped to take her picture with him but said she felt like a “hypocrite” because she planned to vote for Rubio.
“I really like his chances of beating the Democratic nominee, whoever that is,” she said. “I think he is more conservative, probably a bigger fighter than Jeb. I do think Jeb is a good human being, but I’m not quite sure he could fight and do what he’s sent up there to do.”
The first town hall meeting Bush held Wednesday after losing Haley’s endorsement felt like a last stand. Bush appeared frustrated and defensive. Rumors circled about his dwindling campaign cash and, later, his staffers eying the exits.
“I hope that you believe that it’s possible for us to do this,” Bush told voters later that day. “I hope you don’t think the end is near.”
The denouement continued Thursday and Friday, where Jeb stumped with a tinge of nostalgia accompanied by his mother, Barbara; wife, Columba; son Jeb Jr., and two younger brothers, Marvin and Neil. On Saturday, he maintained his tradition of going to polling places with longtime friend and Miami developer Sergio Pino, with Bush working over voters in line.
“Thank you for allowing us to close out our campaign here,” told the crowd Friday night in the town of Central.
He was referring solely to South Carolina.
But it ended up being his final farewell.
McClatchy correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this story from Columbia, and Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed from Miami.