Marco Rubio is emerging from the dust of the South Carolina primary as the GOP establishment’s last hope: the candidate who might have a shot at beating Donald Trump. He's seen as the guy with the likability of Obama, the working-class immigrant background it would like to champion as the future of the party and the conservative credentials to appease the base.
Only he hasn’t won anything yet.
Though he gave victory speeches in Iowa and South Carolina, Rubio came in third and second in those contests, respectively, and has just 10 delegates to Donald Trump’s 67, proving that the 44-year-old junior senator from Florida still faces a seriously steep uphill climb.
To be sure: Rubio's gaining momentum, and his ability to come back from a dismal fifth-place finish in New Hampshire signals the candidate's resiliency and long-term potential. Now that Gov. Jeb Bush has suspended his campaign, Rubio's well-situated to attract much of his establishment support, likely giving Rubio an added few points in the polls.
He'll also earn a slew of endorsements, which are already rolling in: Bob Dole, the GOP’s 1996 nominee and former Senate majority leader, gave Rubio his nod on Monday, NBC News learned. Earlier in the day, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty endorsed Rubio on CNN, saying he “can unite the party, and you can’t ask for much more than that,” while North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said Rubio “has the unique capability of drawing new people into the party, which is critically important in a swing state like North Carolina.”
While these high-profile endorsements give him a stable of new surrogates to help him build his case for party nomination and bring it through the general election, the general’s a long way off, and the Bush's supporters won’t win him any races just yet. In South Carolina, Rubio’s narrow second-place win was still double digits behind Trump’s victory, so even folding in the whole of Bush's 8 percent wouldn't have made up the difference.
And don't forget: Sen. Ted Cruz. Rubio may have beat him in South Carolina -- just barely -- but Cruz is polling ahead of Rubio in many of the upcoming races, where closed primaries in conservative states favor a far-right candidate like Cruz.
The pair has been at war in recent weeks, with Rubio attacking Cruz as dishonest. Their battle saw Cruz lose a top aide in Rick Tyler, who had released an ad inaccurately showing Rubio dismissing the Bible. Meanwhile, Cruz has sought to slam Rubio for his stance on immigration, a liability among far right voters for whom immigration is a hot-button issue.
Both men know they must defeat the other to move forward, and it’s a feud that’s perhaps Trump’s biggest advantage: While the pair duke it out with each other in their quest to be the billionaire mogul's alternative, the GOP front-runner can keep campaigning, collecting delegates and shoring up support.
Still, there are definitely signs of what his campaign likes to call ‘Marcomentum.’
Over the weekend Rubio saw his biggest crowd yet, with 4,000 in Tennessee.
And perhaps biggest boon from Bush’s departure from the race isn’t his voters, but rather the end of his attacks, according to GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who is working for one of the super PACs supporting the Florida senator.
“For the first three contests, [the pro-Bush PAC] Right to Rise pounded him silly in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That factor has disappeared,” Wilson told MSNBC. “So really, the race really just started in that regard.”
Republican pollster Lee Carter said she sees a number of Republican voters who are seeking an alternative to Trump and Cruz, but they’re still undecided on Rubio – and not entirely sure why.
“There’s not real, rational arguments against him,” she said. “Rubio is really much like the candidate – if you think about it like dating -- who you think on paper, 'He’s the right guy!' But you just don’t want to kiss him, the chemistry’s not there.”
But Carter said she’s heard less of that sentiment as voters get to know Rubio more and more and see strong debate performances: “It takes some time to warm up to him.”