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Marco Rubio’s Big Test

Spin can’t save him from a third-place finish in South Carolina—but it also won't save his opponents if he comes in second.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The task of rescuing Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign after his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire last week has required GOP officials and Rubio staffers to give themselves over to blind faith and sorcery—to test the Republican Party’s power to shape its destiny with a potent mix of cash and wish fulfillment. And against the greatest hopes of just about everyone outside the Republican establishment, it seems to be working.

Notwithstanding his disastrous debate malfunction and ensuing collapse in New Hampshire, Rubio has dominated the race for official endorsements, including the two most influential conservatives in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott. His campaign has also managed to wipe the media’s memory clean of recollection that Rubio once claimed his path to victory ran through finishing third in Iowa, followed by second in New Hampshire, and then first in South Carolina. The fact that he’s situated to go 3-5-3 instead of 3-2-1 is no match for his campaign’s mind-control protocol, which makes members of the press comply eagerly when told that a third-place finish in South Carolina should be treated as a significant victory.

The combined effect of these efforts, though subtle, is detectable in both aggregate polling and the fawning tone of press coverage that Rubio has enjoyed in the days since New Hampshire.

But even if Rubio does come in third—a convincing third—in South Carolina, and even if the media heralds it as his comeback (and declares it the end for “establishment” competitors Jeb Bush and John Kasich), the Florida senator still has a pretty glaring problem. With three races down, he will have failed to outperform Donald Trump or Ted Cruz—the favorites for first and second in South Carolina, respectively—in a single contest. All the money and endorsements in the world can’t make 3-5-3 look better than Cruz’s 1-3-2, or Trump’s 2-1-1.

To the contrary, it should elicit questions about why Rubio’s surge in support among party actors and his robust spending haven’t pushed him above third place a single time. And it will point, at best, to a new status quo where he’s locked in a race with Cruz and Trump that he’d have a hard time winning even as the Republican establishment’s standard-bearer.

But on the other side of that coin rests the very real possibility that Rubio will do better than his crude expectations game suggests he will. With a strong third-place finish, Rubio and his influential party backers might be able to muscle Bush and Kasich out of the race. But they’ll have no sway over Ted Cruz, whose support comes from outside the Republican mainstream and who, again, will have bested Rubio in every contest.

If Rubio manages to pull off a second-place surprise in South Carolina, though, Cruz will, for the first time, have to begin weighing his commitment to movement conservatism against his ambition and his distaste for both Rubio and the institutional GOP. The only straightforward way for Rubio (or anyone) to defeat Trump is to make the primary a two-man race. Cruz isn’t going anywhere immediately, but he may soon have to grapple with the limits of his appeal, and feel the pressure not to play spoiler for Trump. 

Polling suggests that both Cruz and Rubio would defeat Trump head-to-head. But as a tribune for conservative ideologues and the religious right, Cruz has little capacity at this point to expand his appeal within the party. Before Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz aligned himself with Trump unrepentantly, in the hope that Trump would fade or collapse, leaving his disaffected supporters in need of a new political home outside the establishment. That was a fine plan for December, but those days are long gone: Trump never faded. His supporters never went up for grabs. If they ever do, many will be averse to aligning with Cruz, whom Trump has assailed as a “nasty guy” and a “liar.” And the delegate math will be tough for Cruz: As FiveThirtyEight explained recently, “the states that are [Cruz’s] most natural fits—those with the highest proportions of evangelical voters—are also the least likely to award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis.”

If Rubio falters in South Carolina, Cruz can still promise to be a bridge between the institutional GOP, the far right, and down-class Trump supporters. If Rubio eclipses Cruz in South Carolina, then Cruz will suddenly be positioned to spoil the race for the establishment, to Trump’s benefit. 

There are limits to how much an aggressive spin campaign can help Rubio if he finishes third on Saturday. But there are similar limits to the argument that New Hampshire delivered him a fatal blow—especially if he bounces ahead of one of the poll leaders so soon after he was counted out for dead.