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Why Marco Rubio has momentum in South Carolina primary

Shifts in political thought

Gov. Nikki Haley gave Marco Rubio a lift with her endorsement, boosting a Republican message of diversity. But frontrunner Donald Trump is pulling the other way. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, (R) of Florida., stands with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, (R) of South Carolina, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, (R) of South Carolina, during a rally Friday in Columbia.
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Most of the time, political endorsements don’t matter. Except when they do.

And in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement this week of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the Republican presidential nomination may be one of those times when it matters.

“There’s no question it gives him some momentum,” says Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist based in Greenville, S.C., who has not endorsed a candidate. 

Governor Haley is one of the most popular governors in the country. Her coveted endorsement, issued just three days before Saturday’s primary, also set up one of the iconic images of the 2016 campaign: four young Republican leaders, three of them minorities, together on stage – the Cuban-American Senator Rubio; the Indian-American Haley; Tim Scott of South Carolina, the US Senate’s only black Republican; and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who is white.

“Take of picture of this, because this new group of conservatives taking over America looks like a Benetton commercial,” Haley told a crowd in Greenville Thursday.

There’s irony in that diverse image. Just as the party is eagerly trying to attract minorities, the GOP’s national and South Carolina frontrunner – Donald Trump – is furiously alienating them with rhetoric about mass deportations and banning foreign Muslims.

“South Carolina is a microcosm of the bigger struggle of the party,” says Mr. Felkel. “We have everybody – social conservatives, retirees, military families, entrepreneurs.”

Heading into Saturday’s primary, Mr. Trump leads with an average 33 percent in polls of the state’s Republicans, according to Real Clear Politics. A win here on Saturday would take him one step closer to the GOP nomination, more for the momentum it confers than for the convention delegates won. But it would settle nothing.

Battle for second place

The fierce battle for second place is just as important, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas averaging 18 percent to Rubio’s 17 percent. Senator Cruz’s campaign is premised on doing well in the South, and centered on outreach to evangelical voters, who comprise two-thirds of the Palmetto State’s GOP electorate. If Rubio beats Cruz on Saturday, not only does Rubio beat expectations and earn a big burst of momentum, he also raises questions about Cruz’s viability.

And if Cruz is the avatar of tea-party conservatism in the 2016 race, a damaged Cruz means damaged hopes that his outsider brand of no-holds-barred conservatism can reach the Oval Office.

But Cruz is well-organized here, with a sophisticated, data-driven turnout operation and a 300-strong roster of faith leaders backing him. On Friday, he scored his own big endorsement: Rep. Mark Sanford, the state’s former governor. Congressman Sanford’s backing may help Cruz in the southern part of the state, where Sanford’s district is located. Cruz is already strong in the more-conservative upstate area.

Still, it’s Rubio with the biggest spring in his step, after he beat out fellow Floridian – former Gov. Jeb Bush – for Haley’s endorsement. Late Friday afternoon, in North Charleston, Rubio, Haley, and Senator Scott reprised their “United Colors of Benetton” moment for several hundred people in a high school gymnasium.

Haley, in her second term as governor, earned national recognition for her handling of the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston last June, including her successful call to lower the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol’s grounds. Haley also gained notice for her State of the Union response last month in which she went after Trump, though not by name, for his incendiary rhetoric. She is often mentioned as a vice-presidential prospect.

“I’m a big fan of Nikki Haley,” says Angie Millar, a schoolteacher visiting from Ohio who agrees that Haley’s endorsement had just swayed her to support Rubio. She says she was moved by the diverse picture of Republican leadership at the event.

“That’s the Republican Party I want my kids to grow up seeing,” says Ms. Millar. “Not old white men.”

Another attendee, Caroline Stanley of Charleston, says she too just settled on Rubio after seeing him in person Friday. “I like his personality and his values. He’s level-headed, not a hot-head,” she adds, calling Trump “a humongous hot-head.”

'[Haley's] endorsement means a lot'

Earlier in the day, Rubio and his high-profile endorsers were unable to attend their rally in Pawleys Island, S.C., after their plane developed mechanical troubles. But attendees there were still happy to talk about the race.

David and Ruth Ann Webster of Pawleys Island say they’re leaning toward Cruz, but could still go for Rubio.

“Rubio just comes across as a little young, maybe that’s a negative,” says Mr. Webster, a retired surgeon. “We’re very fond of our governor, though, and her endorsement means a lot. She’s part of the reason we came, because she was going to be here.”

“So I don’t know, it’s either Cruz or Rubio for us,” he continues. “We’ve got to have someone up there to push Trump out of the way.” 

Another voter at the Pawleys Island event, Corey Turner of Rock Hill, S.C., has already settled on Rubio.

“The big thing with me is when he talks about immigration,” says Mr. Turner. “I was born and raised in California, and have loads and loads of friends who are Mexican. It disgusts me to hear someone say that we’re going to deport and send these people away.”

Turner admires Rubio’s involvement in the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform, even though he eventually dropped it. “Cruz is calling it amnesty, but that wasn’t amnesty,” Turner says.

In the end, the biggest impact of the South Carolina primary may be to winnow the GOP field. The two most endangered candidates are former Mr. Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. A distant fourth- or fifth-place finish would dry up contributions and could well force one or both from the race. That would ignite a furious contest for their supporters.

The departure of Bush could boost the remaining GOP “establishment” candidates, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (who has set expectations low here, as he looks ahead to primaries in northern states). Carson supporters, many of them Evangelicals, may go to Cruz – though some Carson supporters are upset with the Texan, after his campaign falsely put out word that Carson was dropping out on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.

Allegations of dirty tricks are flying thick and fast here as well, in a state famous for them. On Thursday, the Rubio campaign accused the Cruz campaign of putting out a photoshopped picture of a smiling Rubio shaking hands with President Obama. A Cruz spokesman did not deny that the picture was doctored.

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