Rubio And The GOP Establishment Make Their First Last Stand

In South Carolina, Republican insiders got the photo op they wanted – a young Hispanic contender, endorsed by a diverse crew. But is he real-deal enough to stop Trump?
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stands with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), South Carolina Gov. Ni
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stands with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) during a town hall Thursday in Greenville, South Carolina.

ANDERSON, S.C. -- If you think the way Republican party strategists do, then you would have loved the scene here at the Hilton Garden Inn ballroom Thursday afternoon, two days before the GOP holds its crucial presidential primary in South Carolina.

It was a polite, well-dressed crowd: comfortable upstate businesspeople and students from nearby Clemson University. It was the kind of crowd that turned out for -- and voted for -- two generations of Bush family members in years past.

On a stage-in-the-round in a room packed with about 500 people, there stood Sen. Marco Rubio, 44 years old and a son of Cuban immigrants, backed by a trio of top (and very popular) GOP state politicians who had endorsed him: well-coiffed Rep. Trey Gowdy of Benghazi committee fame; Tim Scott, an arch conservative who is one of two African-American members of the U.S. Senate; and, as of Wednesday and introduced last on Thursday, the state’s governor, 44-year-old Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants from Punjab.

“Here comes the cavalry with her endorsement!” said Scott as he brought the governor on stage to greet Rubio and the rest.

This was the first last stand of the GOP establishment, and of traditional ways of doing business in the Republican Party: people making endorsements, people fashioning diverse and demographically shrewd “tickets” to ride.

The Washington and Congress-based establishment, such as it is these days, loathes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his Savonarola-like, holier-than-thou approach to politics, not to mention his oleaginous personality and the cheek he showed when he called GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell a liar.

They are apoplectic and -- worse from their point of view -- utterly confused by Donald Trump, who violates every known rule of politics and is the front-runner as a result.

“He has the fewest advisers, makes what by traditional standards are the worst political moves, says whatever comes into his mind whenever he wants to -- and it all works,” said GOP poll-taker Frank Luntz, who had an anti-establishment past of his own (he was Pat Buchanan’s poll guy in 1992) before he became a certified insider and pundit.

“Why is he not hurt -- in fact, in first place?" Luntz asked rhetorically. “Because voters think he is real, that he is honest, and that he is not part of any of the regular way of doing things.”

As if to prove Luntz’s point, Trump managed to get into a war of words on Thursday with Pope Francis, who suggested that the billionaire wasn’t “Christian” -- a move Trump called a “disgrace.”

The insiders' problem is that the rules they wrote for the 2016 nomination may, ironically, now favor Trump. South Carolina is an open primary -- Democrats can vote, and Trump may get some to do so -- and it is winner-take-all by congressional district. In other words, Trump doesn’t need a majority to win all the delegates, he just has to finish first.

That method, and other rules about how delegates are allocated, give the front-runner the advantage in all of the upcoming events. If Cruz and Rubio keep carving each other up -- and if Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stay in the race after South Carolina -- Trump could be hard to catch as primaries allow him to pile up a big lead.

Hating Cruz and fearing Trump, the insiders more than ever are behind Rubio. They include most of the usual suspects: corporate lobby and fundraising types; defense contractors and war hawks; members of Congress (many have endorsed him, while not a single senator has endorsed Cruz); and elected officials of all levels in various states.

Most of that doesn’t matter in primaries and caucuses, where voters have all the say.

The Haley endorsement may be a little different, especially since the Bush family, including two former presidents, had all but begged her to endorse family scion Bush.

The other reason is that she impressed the entire country with healing words and actions after the deadly attack on a black church in Charleston last year. In local eyes, Haley helped the state -- which has aggressively and successfully marketed itself internationally as a good place for business -- save or at least prevent the ruination of its new image.

No wonder that when Rubio finally spoke to the crowd after the introductions, Haley stood silently at his side for his entire speech.

Unspooling his flowing, upbeat and extremely anodyne stump speech, Rubio tied his own family’s immigrant story to that of Haley and to the story of the country; talked of the GOP’s evident need to expand its reach (“this is what the future of conservatism looks like,” he said, referring to his endorsers); vowed that America’s best days remain ahead; and recited his conservative bona fides on matters such as abortion, gun rights, limited government, lower taxes, higher defense spending and an aggressive military stance.

The key lines: “I am as conservative as anyone in this race,” he said. “And I am a conservative who can win” in the general election.

The crowd warmed to his earnest-sounding themes but saved their loudest applause -- and a standing ovation -- for an attack on Hillary Clinton's handling of the Benghazi episode.

Afterward a Clemson student who was undecided when she came was still not convinced. "I want to look at Ben Carson again," she said.

If Rubio can’t finish strongly here -- pulling off an upset win or a close second -- he and his backers are going to have to make another last stand, until they run out of places to make them.

“Rubio’s message is right in the center of the conservative vote,” said Luntz, interviewed outside the hall after the event. “We’ll see what he can do with it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Tim Scott as the only African-American member of the U.S. Senate.

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