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Eye On Candidates
January 7, 2016

Bush, Rubio Poised to Gain Critical S.C. Endorsement?

While the focus for the next month is likely to be almost exclusively on the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, a few news items this morning out of the Palmetto State suggest the third contest of the 2016 nomination process could be just as important as the first two.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who recently dropped out of the race, sits at the head of a well-regarded political machine, and his endorsement could provide a much-needed boost to anybody not named Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, as an article in The State reports:

To get Graham's endorsement, a presidential candidate must challenge Trump, Cruz

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Wednesday that he’ll expect any presidential candidate who gets his endorsement to challenge Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two candidates currently leading the contest for the Republican nomination.

The Republican Graham said he hasn’t decided whether to endorse one of his former competitors for the White House, but it won’t be Trump or Cruz because he considers them too extreme to beat Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee….

Graham said it’s possible he could endorse any of the other 10 Republicans still in the race.

He volunteered the names of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Based on Graham’s comments in the article, it seems that two of those five have a better chance than the others of getting his endorsement:

About Rubio, who is polling third behind Trump and Cruz, Graham said he likes his hawkish views on national security and optimistic articulation of political conservatism.

But Rubio is “going to have to prove he’s ready at 44,” said Graham, 60. “I could say I wasn’t ready at 44.”

Graham said he’s drawn to Bush because he’s the only Republican who has mounted a sustained challenge to Trump.

But Bush is “going to have to show viability at the ballot box” in New Hampshire, Graham said.

His comments regarding the Bush and the ballot box suggest he intends to wait until after the New Hampshire primary to make an endorsement. Bush and Rubio are both in position to finish respectably in the Granite State, where the most recent poll shows Bush essentially tied for third place alongside Christie, Cruz and Kasich, while Rubio is in second place behind Trump.

Tied for third may not seem like a great position for the former Florida governor, but the poll shows Bush’s support doubling since the previous poll in early December. Kasich and Rubio also showed positive movement, and Christie has been enjoying renewed interest and growing support in New Hampshire and nationally, so Bush still has work cut out for him to demonstrate the sort of “viability” Graham is looking for. But it’s not difficult to see a reinvigorated Bush finishing in third or fourth place in New Hampshire and passing the threshold Graham has set. A second-place finish for Bush, which doesn’t seem likely but is by no means out of the question, would probably be enough to seal the deal and gain Graham’s endorsement heading into South Carolina.

While Bush would seem to have the inside track on Graham’s endorsement if he can do well in New Hampshire, Rubio has a lot going for him in South Carolina with or without the support of his former rival. His political team is stocked with experienced political advisors with South Carolina connections, and he recently scooped up several more key supporters, as The State reported:

Marco Rubio has added the S.C. director for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and named several supporters of the Republican Florida senator’s mentor to lead his state finance team.

Buzz Jacobs, who runs a Florida-headquartered political consulting firm, has joined the Rubio campaign as a senior adviser based in South Carolina.

Jacobs, who was a member of President George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council staff, directed McCain’s 2008 win in the S.C. primary and became the Republican Arizona senator’s Southeast regional campaign manager in the general election. He worked with political-action committees during the 2012 presidential cycle….

Rubio named nine S.C. finance co-chairs, including four who were active on campaigns for former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville. DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank, endorsed Rubio in his 2010 Senate run.

Rubio also picked up the endorsement of South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy in recent days, and the average of polls shows him holding down the third spot in the state, putting him in a good position to cement his position as the leading alternative to Trump and Cruz with a strong showing in South Carolina. Finishing well ahead of Bush, Christie, Kasich, and Fiorina in New Hampshire is could be enough to seal the deal and secure the coveted Graham endorsement.

No one knows now what the impact of major endorsements will be once the voting actually starts, but almost every candidate would rather have them than not. Graham’s endorsement could be decisive heading into the South Carolina primary, but who gets that endorsement is likely to depend heavily on how candidates fare a week earlier in New Hampshire. It’s likely that Rubio could survive either way, but Graham’s choice could be what makes or breaks the Bush campaign’s hopes of winning the nomination.