Jeb’s defeat and, now, Marco’s challenge

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took himself out of the presidential race after coming in fourth in South Carolina.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took himself out of the presidential race after coming in fourth in South Carolina. AP

Now that Jeb Bush has taken himself out of the race for the White House, the spotlight in next month’s Florida primary — and the pressure — falls on Sen. Marco Rubio. This is his home state. If he can’t beat Donald Trump here, his claim to become the party’s presidential nominee may suffer a fatal blow.

First come the big Super Tuesday primaries, which will take place March 1. That’s the single biggest day on the U.S. primary calendar, with 12 states, many in the South, voting in the GOP race. But there are dozens of primaries and caucuses beyond that date, with none more important than the two biggest swing states in the nation — Florida and Ohio.

Both are scheduled for March 15, and both have a home-state figure in the race: Mr. Rubio in the Sunshine State, and Gov. John Kasich in the Buckeye State. Each must win victories among the voters they call constituents or lose political credibility.

In a sense, Florida residents — especially Republican primary voters in Miami-Dade County — were cheated out of a race that would have featured two well-known, popular hometown figures going against each other on their own turf. Anyone with even the slightest interest in politics would have loved to witness the political contest between the former governor and his onetime protégé. Alas, we’ll never know what might have been.

For that, Mr. Bush and his campaign strategists have to take the blame. Instead of fashioning a campaign that ensured that the former governor could make it to Florida to seek votes in a crucial state where his name carries weight, he spent too much money and political capital in smaller states, where the expectations he raised went unfulfilled. Mr. Kasich, by way of contrast, fared badly in South Carolina, too, behind Mr. Bush, but he kept expectations low and lives to fight another day — in his home state of Ohio.

In retrospect, Mr. Bush also carried a burden that turned out to be politically fatal. The voters, it now seems clear, demand change. It’s tough to stand for change when your last name is Bush. He also ignored Mr. Trump’s taunts and insults for too long. More nobly, as he said in an emotional farewell speech, he refused to pander to the extremists by demonizing immigrants or disparaging Common Core. He lost the race, but his integrity remains intact.

The question now is who is left to claim those voters who are not attracted by Mr. Trump’s bombast or Sen. Ted Cruz’s extremism.

Mr. Rubio has run an astute campaign, a few notable stumbles aside. His narrow second-place finish in South Carolina sets him up to become the establishment favorite against Mr. Trump and Sen. Cruz, who boast of being outsiders. But his campaign has often been shrill, ridiculously claiming President Obama has deliberately weakened the country and taking a far-out position on abortion (“practically never”). Can he convince voters that he’s a practical choice even as he tries to match the extreme policies of Sen. Cruz on immigration and other issues? How much importance will Florida voters attach to Mr. Rubio’s absence from his salaried job in the Senate so that he could wage a campaign for president?

Former Gov. Bush, for his part, may be out of the race (though his name remains on the Florida ballot), but he can still play a role by endorsing a candidate who shares his center-right appeal and practical, problem-solving approach to politics. He should speak up, and let the chips fall where they may.