According to multiple Rubio allies recently briefed on campaign strategy, the senator's team has settled on an unconventional path to winning the GOP primary contest. The strategy, dubbed "3-2-1" by some who have been briefed on it, forecasts a sequence in which Rubio takes third place in Iowa on February 1, finishes second in New Hampshire on February 9, and wins South Carolina on February 20. From there, Rubio would be well-positioned in the long haul to win a plurality of voters, and ultimately a majority of delegates, in a three-way contest against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
It was about a month ago when National Review, a prominent conservative magazine, published a piece highlighting Marco Rubio's 2016 strategy, at least as it relates to the early nominating states.
And for a time, the blueprint appeared quite sound. Despite excessive media buzz, Rubio came in third in Iowa, and soon after, polls showed him on track to finish second in New Hampshire. The senator's support quickly dried up, however, following a cringe-worthy debate performance, and Rubio finished an embarrassing fifth in the Granite State.
And in South Carolina, we now know Rubio finished second, barely escaping third, losing to Donald Trump by double digits. In terms of the broader race for the Republican nomination, the frontrunner picked up 50 delegates in the Palmetto State. Rubio earned none.
This, of course, is being characterized as yet another triumph for the young senator.
I get the basic argument. Rubio eked out a second-place finish, which looks more impressive when compared to his New Hampshire results. As the field narrows, and the GOP establishment and donor class gets more hysterical in demanding that Republicans get in line behind the senator, Rubio is positioned to consolidate more support, picking up voters and contributors who were on board with candidates like Jeb Bush.
But the conventional wisdom surrounding his latest loss overlooks something important: Rubio lost a primary he should have won. Consider:
* As the primary drew closer, Rubio enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of nearly the entire South Carolina GOP establishment which endorsed him, cut ads for him, and aggressively hit the campaign trail on his behalf.
* One of his high-profile supporters in the state, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), boasted last week that Rubio had a credible shot at winning the primary.
* Team Rubio itself, a month earlier, said it expected a victory in South Carolina.
* Rubio and his super PAC invested heavily in the state -- outspending every other Republican except Team Jeb.
* Rubio paid "more than $1.1 million to South Carolina operatives and political consultants, more than triple the amount of all his opponents combined."
And despite all of this, Rubio nevertheless lost by double digits -- to a first-time candidate who spent the week leading up to the primary saying bizarre things, and who has nothing in common with the state's Southern, evangelical population.
A variety of adjectives come to mind. "Triumphant" and "impressive" aren't among them.
Last week, when it still seemed like a Rubio victory was possible, National Review also published a piece that noted, "Rubio's team insists they are focused on winning a long-term delegate fight against Trump and Cruz. Yet both of those candidates have already notched wins. Sooner or later, to sustain the perception of viability, Rubio will need to win somewhere. And it's not unreasonable to ask ... if Rubio can't win here, with most of the state's Republican apparatus supporting him, where can he?
As expected, Team Rubio and the Republican Message Machine are eager to pretend, once again, that Rubio's latest defeat is actually a victory, which you too will notice if you're willing to tilt your head and cover one eye. And much of the political world, once again, seems willing to go along.
That's a shame -- because it's hard to imagine any other candidate generating this kind of hype after a "3-2-1" plan turned into a "3-5-2" reality.