If you take a walk through the sunny streets of South Carolina’s capital, it would appear Marco Rubio may have a very good weekend.
In Columbia, there are many, many signs supporting his campaign. It’s not hard to spot a bumper sticker with his name.
A quick chat to some students at the University of South Carolina and he is the Republican candidate who seems to get most support. Granted, it’s hardly a scientific survey, but it’s indicative that he may be back on track in the presidential race.
The Florida senator perhaps feels more at home among the palm trees and the warm temperatures than in the chilly snowstorms of New Hampshire.
He didn’t have a great time in the northeast. A poor debate performance seemed to knock him off his game and he trailed in fifth. Given he was the candidate who was assumed to have momentum after a top-three finish in Iowa, it was a disappointing finish.
Now his team is talking about a good performance in the first southern state to hold a nominating contest.
One is even quoted in the local press as suggesting third is a lock, and with a fair wind and a good turnout, second is not beyond them.
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He has secured the endorsement of the state’s popular Republican governor, Nikki Haley, and other influential figures. Every second political advert on local TV is attacking Rubio.
His foreign policy experience, his position on immigration, even his similarities to the last first-term senator to be elected president – a guy called Barack Obama - all seem to be fair game. And if they’re attacking you, you must be doing well.
But if there is a Rubio surge, it’s bad news for Jeb Bush.
He banked on the popularity of the family name here. His brother, the last Republican president, has huge approval ratings in the state. And George W was happy to join the campaign trail and stump for his brother on Monday. But it seems to be making no difference in the polls. He sits fourth.
And if that turns out to be true, then his campaign would almost certainly be over.
One senior party figure told me that no one was pressing the panic button. “After South Carolina, only 5 percent of delegates will be awarded, there’s still a long way to go.”
That’s true. But the optics are terrible. And if establishment figures fear that Donald Trump is running away with the nomination, the anti-Trump vote has to be united at some point.
While he has a massive war chest and plenty of big-name endorsements, it's clear his early strategy of “shock and awe" to build up an inevitablility about his selection as the presidential nominee simply couldn’t adjust to the arrival of Trump.
And so fourth place here may mean someone quickly pulling the former Florida governor aside and asking him to take one for the party, pull out and throw his support behind his former protégé, Marco Rubio. If he can’t win a primary early on, where does he get a breakthrough?
As for Donald Trump, he continues to top the polls in South Carolina. But that support appears to have a ceiling. He can’t get above the mid-thirties.
Trump's recent spat with Pope Francis won’t help him in a state where many voters identify themselves as “born-again Christians” or “evangelicals”, but as we’ve seen time and again, controversy doesn’t seem to damage the billionaire businessman either.
Ted Cruz may have topped a national poll this week - but he needs a second-place finish here. Third place and he has a problem. And that is he can’t seem to expand his support beyond the right wing of the Republican Party. He’s been the source of most of the attacks against Rubio as he clearly sees him as a threat.
John Kasich knew after his second place in New Hampshire that it would be hard to build on that momentum here. So after a few events, he’s gone on to campaign elsewhere.
That may work, but there’s a real chance this Republican battle, which started with so many candidates, is narrowing dramatically.
And after South Carolina’s primary – it could be a battle between three to chase the sun for the rest of this campaign.
Source: Al Jazeera