On the heels of his slow but steady rise, Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio returns to the Midlands on Friday and to a state where he has deep ties.
Rubio, the protege of former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville, is popular in the first-in-the-South primary state, where he is in third place, according to polls.
Before he was a presidential candidate, Rubio headlined the state GOP’s annual fundraiser and stumped for S.C. candidates. His campaign also is sprinkled with operatives with deep S.C. ties.
The U.S. senator from Florida will join S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson in a forum on constitutional issues in West Columbia.
But Rubio’s S.C. visit also comes amid questions about his campaign.
Nationally, Rubio raised an underwhelming $5.7 million during the last three months. And despite a higher national profile, more press attention and a super PAC’s support, Rubio, at 9 percent, lags far behind the GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, at 27 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
In South Carolina, Rubio’s campaign has yet to open an office, perplexing some observers. A Rubio campaign staffer’s home doubles as a headquarters for now. But the campaign says it has plans to open an office or headquarters soon.
“It (opening an office) shows you’re taking a state seriously,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican political consultant from Greenville.
Thus far, Rubio has waged a “stealth” campaign in South Carolina, said Felkel, calling that strategy “risky.”
“They keep saying they have everything together, but I haven’t seen any announcements,” Felkel said of the Rubio camp. “There is not a lot of evidence of infrastructure.
“Sooner or later, people are going to stop window shopping, and they’re going to look for a viable candidate — somebody other than Trump, somebody other than Carson. They’re going to look to see who’s actually got support.”
Lead in February, not October
Rubio’s campaign says it has been working behind the scenes to build support in the Palmetto State.
“I wouldn’t confuse the lack of movement for a lack of action,” said Alex Conant, Rubio’s campaign spokesman.
Rubio’s S.C. campaign events have been successful thus far, Conant said. For example, more than 700 came to a Rubio campaign event at the University of South Carolina, showing the interest that young Republicans have in the candidate, he said.
Trying to appeal to younger voters is part of the 44-year-old Rubio’s strategy, which also touts a tougher foreign policy, repealing Obamacare, bolstering the military and opposing Common Core.
The campaign has five full-time paid staff members in South Carolina to get out its message, only two less than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has in the state.
“We’re starting October right where we want to be and well on our way to having the resources we need to win the Republican nomination,” Conant said, adding polls this early in this campaign fluctuate and, therefore, are not that important. “Our goal is to be leading in the polls in February, when South Carolinians are voting, not in October.”
In terms of fundraising, Rubio’s campaign brought in $5.7 million from July through September, down from the $8.9 million that his campaign raised in the previous three months.
Thus far in the campaign, Rubio’s campaign has raised $21 million, trailing Carson, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Bush. (Frontrunner billionaire Trump has said he is largely self-financing his campaign.)
But Rubio’s operation also has run on a leaner budget than some campaigns, spending less than Carson and Bush.
That means Rubio has almost $11 million left to spend, closely trailing Cruz’s $13.8 million, Carson’s $11.3 million and surpassing Bush’s $10.3 million.
S.C. ties run deep
Conant predicts Rubio will do well in South Carolina – “a state that has been important to Marco for a long time.”
“(Rubio) says he quite literally would not be a senator” if not for the “early support from Jim DeMint,” Conant added.
The Tea Party “king-maker” raised millions to help long-shot conservatives win, helping propel Rubio’s long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate.
DeMint is not the only tie Rubio has to the Palmetto State.
Terry Sullivan, a former DeMint campaign manager, is Rubio’s national campaign manager. The Rubio campaign also has hired national pollster Whit Ayres, a USC graduate who works for other S.C. candidates, and Wesley Donehue, a digital strategist who was a political aide to S.C. Senate Republicans.
Warren Tompkins, a veteran S.C. political consultant who has worked on several GOP presidential campaigns, is running a super PAC aimed at helping Rubio win.
As the winnowing of GOP candidates continues, Rubio will emerge as the “the best candidate with the best message in the field,” Tompkins predicts
A “stealth” strategy?
In national polls, Rubio peaked at second place at 14 percent support in May, trailing only Bush, who then was in the lead. Then, Rubio dropped off steadily, falling to seventh place nationally, at about 5 percent support in early August.
Since then, however, Rubio has seen his support creep up slowly, getting modest boosts after the two GOP debates.
That is a good sign, said S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore.
“The goal is to peak on election day. And that seems to be the goal of the Rubio campaign. He has the right momentum right now,” Moore said.
Rubio’s next shot at increasing his support nationally comes next week, with Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate in Boulder, Colo.
Rubio doesn’t need a clear-cut win in that debate, said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon.
“If you assume a monumental collapse by some candidates, then no, he doesn’t need a breakout performance,” Huffmon said.
Instead, by intentionally flying under the radar, Rubio’s campaign could be “setting themselves up for when they expect the Trumps and, maybe, the Carsons to collapse.”
At that point, Huffmon said, Rubio could rise as “a mainstream alternative without the Bush baggage.”
The Republican presidential hopeful has seen his fund-raising numbers drop nationally, prompting questions about his campaign’s viability.
Raised: $5.7 million from July through September, down from $8.9 million from April through June
Rubio in SC: $215,500
Cash left to spend: $11 million
Total raised: $21 million
In S.C. GOP primary polls, an average
Donald Trump: 27 percent
Ben Carson: 21 percent
Rubio: 9 percent
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas: 8 percent
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida: 7 percent