After placing a disappointing fifth in the New Hampshire primary earlier this month, Marco Rubio is once again being played up in the press as the presidential candidate most likely to do well in South Carolina on Saturday.
We’ll believe it when we see it.
After Rubio came in third in Iowa’s caucuses, which kicked off the presidential nominating contest at this the start of this month, we agreed that he was now better positioned to claim to be the consensus candidate who could defeat both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two frontrunners.
But then came an awful debate performance in which a cornered Rubio repeated verbatim the same “memorized 25-second speech,” as one of his opponents put it, four times.
It wasn’t just a bad moment. It made Rubio seem like a political dilettante and that led Republicans to revisit the doubts they had about him in the first place.
They know the Floridian can give a speech. But can this freshman senator, who has no executive experience, really take on Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November?
Then there is Rubio’s alarmist foreign policy. There are his hardline positions on social issues. And there’s still no evidence he can raise Republicans’ popularity with Hispanic and young voters, two constituencies that helped reelect Barack Obama in 2012.
Reporters have talked up Rubio’s prospects for months, only for Rubio to never quite live up to them. No candidate has had such favorable coverage this year — from both “mainstream” liberal outlets and right-wing media — yet Rubio’s support has stayed between 10 and 15 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
To be fair, his poll numbers have started climbing in the last couple of weeks and Rubio is picking up more endorsements from Republican leaders, including one from South Carolina’s popular governor, Nikki Haley, this week.
FiveThirtyEight reports that in terms of endorsements, Rubio is now around the point where Ronald Reagan was at this stage in the nominating contest in 1980 and only slightly behind where John Kerry was on the Democratic side in 2004.
But those were unusually fraught primaries. George H.W. Bush was the favorite going into the Republican contest in 1980 and didn’t drop out until May. The Democratic primary in 2004 had no favorite until the early voting states eliminated Kerry’s opponents.
If he places ahead of Jeb Bush, the son of George H.W. and the other candidate vying for the support of moderately conservative voters in South Carolina, Rubio may finally get the boost he needs to consolidate the anti-Trump and anti-Cruz vote.
But the next primaries in the South are favorable to Cruz while Bush and even John Kasich, the Ohio governor who placed second in New Hampshire, may want to wait until after Florida and Ohio have voted later in March before deciding if they still stand a chance.