COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Gulp.
That was the collective feeling at Ted Cruz's election night headquarters here in Columbia, South Carolina, after the Texas senator's disappointing finish behind real estate mogul Donald Trump and effective tie with Florida Senator Marco Rubio. It was one thing that Cruz had underperformed relative to Rubio, but to have lost to Donald Trump -- a bombastic, ethically questionable, politically hermaphroditic New Yorker -- that, THAT was almost too much to swallow.
"We cannot make sense of it," marveled Claude O'Donovan, an older Ted Cruz supporter. "We all stand around and shake our heads."
"I don't get it," echoed Tony Ewing.
Imagine, for a moment, the quiet horror and disbelief Cruz supporters must be experiencing to have their guy lose, in the heart of Republican America, to that abortion flip-flopper, that Bush basher, that "Two Corinthians" guy -- that guy who hails from New York City, a Babylon of gays, atheists, multilingual schools, knishes and those promiscuous ladies from that HBO show their kids watch.
"It's ignorance," an irate Candice Cassim seethed. "It's the undereducation of our children!"
Stupid children aside, Cruz faces a number of obstacles between now and the convention. To come out of a state so tailor-made for his politics only tied for second place does not bode well for his chances in Super Tuesday states like Georgia, Oklahoma and Alabama. This is a state, after all, where there are a bunch of things still named after Strom Thurmond.
Donald Trump will almost certainly continue to dominate the news cycle, though whether it's by calling the Dalai Lama a wuss, urging America to bomb Belgium or picking a fight with Fran Drescher, it remains to be seen.
And with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush suspending his campaign, stories of Bush surrogates flocking to the Rubio campaign are bound to populate the news cycle in the coming week, providing even more momentum to Marco Rubio, who beat expectations in South Carolina.
So, what does Sen. Cruz need to remain viable through Super Tuesday, with a still-dominant Donald Trump and a rising Marco Rubio buoyed by orphaned Jeb Bush supporters -- to say nothing of Ben Carson, Cruz's most likely source of poached votes, vowing not to drop out?
"I honestly don't know," fumed Terri Sullivan, another attendee. "I am so baffled by what South Carolina has done today and what baffles me more than anything are the people who call themselves Christians who voted for someone like Trump."
"What baffles me more than anything are the people who call themselves Christians who voted for someone like Trump." Terri Sullivan, Ted Cruz supporter
Added Michael Branch, 41: "I think we'll know a lot on Super Tuesday."
During his election night speech, Cruz tried to paint himself as the true anti-establishment figure to take on Democrats in November.
"If you believe we need a strong contrast with the Democrats," Cruz said, "then we welcome you aboard our team."
He added that voters have "a clear defined choice: you can go with Washington dealmakers, or we can stand together with a proven consistent constitutional conservative and bring back Morning in America," -- a reference to the famous 1984 advertisement for Ronald Reagan's re-election.
But it was clear that Cruz supporters were straining to find a coherent narrative after a disappointing outcome in South Carolina.
"Texas has more delegates than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, combined," Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Cruz surrogate, said before Cruz took the stage.
"Four years ago, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina," State Sen. Lee Bright bellowed to the crowd. "How'd that turn out?"
"Ted gets a ticket out of here, regardless," said former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, who is also a state co-chair for Cruz. "And Senator Rubio, if he can't win here, where can he win?"
Of course, the same question could be asked of Cruz.
Cruz supporters are putting a lot of weight on the candidate's ground game, which propelled him to an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. However, as the campaign shifts to a national scale -- there are 13 Republican contests on March 1 -- ground games will play an increasingly small role, dwarfed by the mass media politics Donald Trump knows so well and that Marco Rubio, with a galvanized establishment behind him, will be financially well-positioned to tackle.
One thing's for sure. Cruz supporters Saturday night were angry and even a little bewildered as the prospect loomed that their candidate would be another Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses only to rake up a handful of primary victories in deep red states.
"I am extremely upset with [South Carolina] Senator Tim Scott and [Congressman] Trey Gowdy for their lies," said Sunny O'Donovan, referring to the two rising star lawmakers who had endorsed Marco Rubio. "I wrote Tim Scott and said, 'I voted for you. I will not vote for you again.'"
Timothy Kain, who said he liked Cruz's "Christian values," is unsure what he will do if he has to choose between Donald Trump and a Democrat.
"I'd have to hold my nose and vote for Trump," said Kain. "Or maybe it'd be the first time I didn't vote."
Editor's Note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist,
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