Summerville, South Carolina — Marco Rubio is pushing a focused message of electability and hawkish foreign policy, where his campaign sees a ripe opportunity for a rebound after a weak performance in New Hampshire.
“I am the last one left in this race that can unify the party,” the senator told an overflow crowd at a tree-lined pavilion here.
Rubio, by his own account, damaged himself in New Hampshire by flubbing a debate days before its primary. But it wasn’t a fatal moment. Not yet at least. He’s drawn strong attendance at his rallies in South Carolina all week and the audience gave him a welcome reception.
"You're here in the middle of a Tuesday because you understand this election is not just another election; It isn't,” Rubio said. “We were reminded of that on Saturday with the passing of Justice Scalia. What a wake up call, a reminder of what's at stake here.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the first African-American elected to that position in the South since Reconstruction, joined Rubio onstage.
“Sometimes as Republicans we have to choose between a conservative and a candidate who can win,” Scott told the audience. “This year we have a conservative who can win and that’s good news.”
That was good enough for local Cheri Lowry, 68, who said she was close to backing Rubio, and that local icon Scott’s support was the biggest factor.
“We have so much input in this race, it’s a logjam,” she said. “I have such respect and confidence in Sen. Scott, and if it’s 50-50 he makes the difference for me.”
Rubio is in a familiar position in South Carolina this week. He’s got big name endorsements in the state – in addition to Scott, Rep. Trey Gowdy is backing him and recorded a campaign ad -- positive buzz in the press, and a message that seems to line up well with the voters. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Not so far, at least. Polls show Donald Trump still dominating the state and Rubio faces a stiff challenge from several rivals caught in the mix below. But if he can close out with a strong performance, especially relative to Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rubio has time to make a serious run for the nomination.
With everyone else looking at South Carolina as the same ticket to an eventual one-on-one fight with Trump, Rubio is a prime target for attacks. But he’s dishing out plenty himself.
In particular, he and Cruz are constantly sniping at each other this week.
“Ted is weak on national security,” Rubio told reporters Tuesday. “I mean, he voted for the Rand Paul budget that cuts defense, he considered Edward Snowden a good public servant. I consider [Snowden] a traitor.”
That was roughly in line with his take for the press the day before.
“There’s no other word for it but lying,” Rubio said on his campaign bus Monday. “He's lied about my position on marriage, lied about my position on Planned Parenthood, lied about his own record on immigration.”
Cruz, in turn, has bashed Rubio over the head with his work on the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill in 2013.
"I guess Marco's team has told him, 'Well, if anyone brings up your actual record, the fact that over and over and over again you've supported amnesty, just yell liar,” Cruz said on Fox Monday.
The two have been dueling for months. Rubio strategist Todd Harris told reporters Tuesday that there’s heavy interest in both candidates within key voting groups like social conservatives, creating natural friction.
“We’ve been trying to tell the press for six months that our vote and Jeb’s don’t overlap as much as they think,” he said.
In the last week, Rubio’s campaign convinced networks to take down an ad by a pro-Cruz group Stand For Truth accusing the Florida senator of supporting “sanctuary cities," which his team claimed was false. Cruz’s campaign demanded Tuesday that an American Future Fund ad claiming he “proposed mass legalization of illegal immigrants” also be removed on similar grounds.
Rubio has pitched himself as the more upbeat candidate who can attract new voters, but his campaign has also taken to feeding the visceral anti-Obama rage that Cruz has tapped more freely. A new campaign ad from Rubio is instructive: It copies Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” commercial, which described a nation on the economic rebound, and instead depicts the country as a dystopian hell under the current administration.
Leaving the Summerville event in his pickup truck, 70-year old Drew Nosti told MSNBC he was planning on voting Rubio, who had “fire in his belly” and a realistic plan on immigration.
“The public would accept a road to legalization and citizenship, but you got to slam the door on the border,” he said. “Unfortunately in the Republican Party, you can’t say that.”