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Eye On Candidates
February 12, 2016

Can Rubio Make a Comeback?

After a disappointing fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is hoping for a better showing in South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 20. The Washington Examiner this morning explains what Rubio’s plan is to regain the momentum he had coming out of Iowa and re-establish himself as a leading contender for the GOP nomination:

Marco Rubio's South Carolina comeback plan

The Florida senator has expanded his scope of attack to include rival Donald Trump, while continuing to contrast himself with Ted Cruz and also directing some fire at Jeb Bush. Rubio is pitching South Carolina Republicans that his judgment, foreign policy expertise and a future-oriented domestic agenda makes him more qualified than Cruz, and is more valuable in the Oval Office than Trump's business background and Bush's executive experience….

In a conference call with more than 170 donors and other supporters the morning after Rubio's fifth place showing in New Hampshire, his campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, detailed Rubio's comeback strategy.

Sources who joined the call said that Sullivan was upbeat as he expressed optimism about the South Carolina primary and explained his view that Rubio has distinct advantages over his competitors. Sullivan is a veteran of Palmetto State politics, previously guided former senator and conservative icon Jim DeMint to victories there. Sullivan reminded Rubio supporters that the senator is well connected in South Carolina and that his team and broader network know how to win races there….

Rubio supporters there believe the senator is well positioned to compete for the mix of fiscal, social and national security Republicans that comprise the party's electorate there. In tone and substance, he has something to offer each these factions, and isn't unacceptable to any of them. The "upstate" region around Greenville is socially conservative; the coastal "low country” around Charleston is fiscally conservative and cares about national security, and the "midlands" around Columbia is a cross between the two.

The data-driven analysts over at seem to like Rubio’s chances, although there are also plenty of reservations. From their “chat” late yesterday afternoon:

clare.malone: …Rubio screwed up, but he’s not totally done for. I would say Rubio has the most staying power of the three [Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich] still.

harry: Rubio has multiple arguments. 1. He has electability (sells to the center). 2. He’s not as conservative as Cruz (sells to the center). 3. He’s got a conservative record (sells to the right).

natesilver: To take one important constituency: Talk radio’s never going to get on Bush’s side in a one-on-one race with [Donald] Trump. It might get on Rubio’s side.

harry: We already heard it get on Rubio’s side after the debate. Mark Levin was blasting Chris Christie and defending Rubio. Rush Limbaugh was defending Rubio against Trump!

clare.malone: Low energy.

natesilver: Bush can win the “Morning Joe” Republicans, but Rubio can win the Rush Limbaugh Republicans. There are a lot more Rush Republicans than “Morning Joe” Republicans.

Towards the end of the discussion, they offered some expectations for what Rubio needs to do to put New Hampshire behind him:

harry: Rubio needs a strong third (mid-20s) or better in South Carolina. If he does that, we’ll forget about New Hampshire. If he doesn’t, there’s going to be talk….

natesilver: I think Rubio would be fine if he 1) has a good debate and 2) solidly beats Bush in South Carolina. Neither of which are easy! But I don’t think he needs to get into the mid-20s if he does those other two things.

CNN also weighs in on how Rubio plans to “reboot” his campaign in South Carolina:

The Republican candidate, who lost momentum this week after coming in fifth in New Hampshire, plans to take a more aggressive tone with some of his rivals -- especially if they attack him on the debate stage -- and is expected to showcase more of his affable personality in order to rebut criticism that he is a scripted candidate….

In a shift, Rubio had a 44-minute free-flowing conversation with reporters on his campaign plane en route to Greenville. Relaxed, talkative and reflective, he spoke about his debate gaffe, criticisms of him being too scripted and his path to the nomination. His team hopes to show more of this side of him, including with more focus on his hardscrabble personal story and being the son of working-class Cuban immigrants….

The end of the article includes a line that just might wind up being a staple going forward for the campaign (which in and of itself may be a problem):

When asked if his debate missteps were like then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry's infamous "oops" moment in 2012, Rubio said: "There's a big difference. He couldn't remember what he wanted to say. I remembered it too well."

Rubio remains a gifted communicator and talented politician, and he is unlikely to go away anytime soon. But the stakes for him have clearly been raised in South Carolina, and if he hopes to get back on what many thought was one of the easier paths to the nomination, he will have to do well on Feb. 20.