Examine the chessboard. His best-case scenario in South Carolina, which he was aiming to win a few days ago as the capstone on his “3-2-1” strategy, now seems to be a strong third behind Trump and Cruz. If he pulls that off and then wins Nevada, where Rubio has a strong organization, then conceivably he’s back in the game by the time of the SEC primary on March 1st, where he can pick off a few delegates and then focus on winning his home state of Florida. If he wins Florida on March 15th on top of Nevada, he should be well positioned to be the establishment guy in a three-way race with Trump and Cruz — even though both of them will have piled up considerably more delegates than Rubio by that point. The best-case scenario for Rubio, in other words, is that he still wins … but it won’t be any time soon, as would have seemed possible with a big finish last night. It may even take a brokered convention.
But wait, let’s back up. What’s the state of play in South Carolina? Kasich will be there, not winning many votes but fully capable of damaging Bush and Rubio if he wants to attack. Jeb Bush will be there too, emboldened by finishing (a few hundred votes) ahead of Rubio last night. His Super PAC’s still got a ton of money in the bank and he’s got George W. Bush, who won South Carolina twice, waiting in the wings to campaign for him. Jeb isn’t a pushover in the center-right lane there, especially with new doubts among Republicans that Rubio’s the chosen one after his putrid showing in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, conservatives in South Carolina who prefer Rubio to Cruz now have a tough question to ask themselves: If they stick with Marco, are they denying Ted the crucial votes he needs to beat Trump? Trump led by double digits in each of the three polls taken in South Carolina last month — and that was before his blowout win in NH last night. (Of course, it was also before Cruz’s win in Iowa.) Cruz will spend the next week telling South Carolinians that this is a two-man race and that their choice is between Trumpism and conservatism. That message will work on some undecideds. So if Bush is tearing votes away from Rubio on the left and Cruz is tearing them away on the right, how likely is a “strong” third-place finish for Rubio? If South Carolina ends with Trump at 34, Cruz at 28, Rubio at 17, and Bush at 14, what incentive does Bush have to drop out rather than continue on for a few more weeks and keep trying to pass Rubio as the “establishment choice”?
Another way of thinking about this is that there were two possible decent outcomes for Rubio last night even if he fell short of his desired second-place finish. One would have been Trump disappointing and finishing second to Kasich. That would have been read as proof after Iowa that Trump was a paper tiger, and the search would have begun to find an opponent for Cruz in a developing two-man race. Rubio would still be in the mix for that. The other possible decent outcome last night that could have salvaged even a disappointing Rubio finish would have involved Bush cratering to the point where he had to drop out. If, for instance, Trump had actually inched up into the low 40s and Jeb had finished with, say, four percent, that would have finished Bush and left Rubio wounded but still basically all alone in the role of would-be establishment savior. As it is, Rubio didn’t get either outcome he needed. Trump is a legit threat to win the nomination — the strong favorite, I’d say — and Cruz seems to be the only one with a shot of stopping him, precisely the two-man-template that Rubio doesn’t want. And Jeb actually (slightly) outperformed Rubio, giving him a claim to the role of center-right champion against the Trump/Cruz menace. Jeb is ready to play for the rest of the month too: His strategy was designed to ensure he’d have money to compete throughout February and March, when other candidates in the middle of the pack may be struggling for cash. As noted, he’s ready to compete in Bush-friendly South Carolina and he claims to have the best operation in Nevada. There’s no reason to think he won’t go on firing missiles at Rubio for the rest of the month, at a moment when Rubio now can’t afford to have to worry about his left flank anymore.
A more realistic scenario for South Carolina, then, is that Rubio finishes a distant third, possibly just strong enough to damage Cruz and set Trump on the path to the nomination. After that comes Nevada, at which point either Trump or Cruz will have two wins under his belt. Somehow Rubio will need to overcome that momentum and Jeb Bush to finish first or second. If he can’t do that in a state where he’s been eyeing victory for months, I think there’s a chance he quits at that point. The risk of going on and pulling further votes from Cruz in a losing effort, thus enabling Trump, should and probably would weigh on him. Even if he continues on to the SEC primary, though, he’ll have to contend with two candidates in Trump and Cruz who are both strong in the south and at least one of whom will have two victories (and possibly three) by then. Rubio’s only chance at this point might be to hope and trust that Cruz hands Trump a string of defeats, discouraging him into quitting the race, while Rubio focuses on destroying Bush. Cruz is in the race for the long haul, I think, but the establishment will resist him every step of the way. If Rubio can hang on and, by process of elimination, become the “Not Cruz” figure, he can win a bunch of later, more moderate states and claim a lot of delegates. Problem is, it’s hard for me to believe that Cruz is about to pull off a series of victories against Trump. Which means Rubio’s odds depend on winning a war with Bush and then waiting patiently for the “Anyone But Trump or Cruz” chunk of the party to come to him, even while the media’s screeching nonstop about a two-man binary choice between anti-establishmentarians for the nomination.
The other, riskier way he can go about building himself back up is by ignoring Bush and attacking Trump or Cruz instead. Attacking others isn’t Rubio’s thing, though, and attacking Cruz could wreck any chance of a conservative stopping Trump before he becomes the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. Why not … attack Trump instead? Conservatives are begging for someone in the field to step up and do that systematically, and Rubio has little to lose now by doing it. It could elevate him by pitting him against the frontrunner and make Jeb seem petty by contrast in focusing his own attacks on Rubio. Even if it doesn’t work, Rubio will have helped the other conservative in the race by doing so and will have built some goodwill with righties ahead of whatever his next move in politics is, probably running for governor in Florida. It would have been better to have Rubio attacking Trump from a position of strength rather than weakness, but as Sean Davis says, the race is now effectively “Trump versus Anti-Trump.” Why not roll the dice and try to be the anti-Trump?