Marco Rubio at a rally in Columbia, S.C. on Feb. 19, 2016.
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

How the Rubio campaign will argue third place is really a victory – again

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Hoping to rebound from New Hampshire’s crushing fifth-place finish, Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign is preparing to finish third in South Carolina.

“To leave here in the top tier would a really nice comeback,” a Rubio aide said, adding that some internal polling suggested it could even be a close race for second.

But critics - especially the Ted Cruz campaign - suggest that spinning a third-place finish into a “victory” is questionable, especially after Rubio netted the endorsements of Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy.

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“He’s got the top three endorsements in the state,” said Alice Stewart, a Cruz spokeswoman. “If he can’t win here, the question is: how can he win anywhere else?”

The Rubio campaign counters that it’s still a six-person race.

“This is still a very crowded field,” Rubio said on NBC’s TODAY. “I think once you get this race down to 2, 3 or 4 people, you’re going to have a much clearer, more traditional campaign.”

For weeks - especially after Rubio’s third-place finish in Iowa – that has been the campaign’s argument: that once the GOP field winnows, the Republican establishment will coalesce around one candidate to battle Trump. Before that happens, “I don’t know how anyone is going to beat (him),” a Rubio aide said.

The brutal attacks between Rubio and Cruz over the past few days show just how intense the competition for being the “anti-Trump” candidate has become.

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“For Rubio, it’s crucial that if he doesn’t come in second, that it’s a very close third,” said Scott Buchanan, the executive director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. “If it’s a distant third, the road’s very difficult for him to get to the nomination.”

Also a major factor: exactly how far behind Jeb Bush finishes. The former Florida governor’s campaign has already planned events in Nevada, but he will be under intense pressure to drop out and clear a path for Rubio if his performance in South Carolina is worse than expected.

The Rubio campaign plans to leave the Palmetto State late Saturday and arrive in Tennessee overnight. It’s planning events Sunday in Nashville and then in Little Rock, Arkansas - two key states for him on Super Tuesday.

Rubio will hold an event in Las Vegas Sunday night and others in Nevada on Monday and Tuesday. But he plans to leave the state before the GOP caucus - and has scheduled a rally in Michigan Tuesday night. 

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