The premise of Marco Rubio's campaign in South Carolina is a simple one. It was best summed up by Rubio spokesman Alex Conant: Rubio is building "a Republican Party that doesn't look like your dad's Republican Party."
For evidence, one need look no further than the group of wisecracking young GOP politicians who joined him at the Swamp Rabbit CrossFit gym in Greenville on Thursday morning. The group included Sen. Tim Scott, the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction, who occupies the seat formerly held by segregationist Strom Thurmond; Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, who led the push to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol last year; and Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the Benghazi committee. Okay, Gowdy is a white guy, but he is at least Gen X and also a wizard. And they were all at the gym to endorse the son of Cuban immigrants who jokes about his fluency in Spanish while campaigning in a state where legislators have regularly pushed English-only laws.
Rubio's surrogates drew attention to their diversity with varying degrees of subtlety. "He is honest, he is humble, he is historic, he represents our state in an incredible way," Gowdy said of Scott.
"She understands the journey of the American dream in a very unique way," Scott said of Haley.
"Take a picture of this," Haley said of the four of them, when they came on stage for a curtain call at the Swamp Rabbit. "Because a new group of conservatives has taken over America. It looks like a Benetton commercial!"
For his part, Rubio likes to emphasize his youth (he's 44, he says, but feels 45) and boasts that he hails from a "new generation" that can "turn the page" on the 20th century. He doesn't talk much about migrants or refugees. (When asked about American Muslims, he sounds like he'd rather be somewhere else.)
But two days before the primary, Rubio is in third place in the polls in the Palmetto State, and—not-so-fun fact—no third-place finisher in this state has ever gone on to win the presidential nomination. One reason he trails Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is because at this moment the Republican past is crushing the GOP's future. Rubio is getting hammered on the airwaves by his opponents for being too soft on undocumented immigrants. And his promise to usher in a new generation is being drowned out by the ultranativist promises of Trump, who derives much of his support from his pledge to build a gigantic wall on the Mexican border and his proposal to ban Muslims from coming to the United States.
Even as South Carolina has welcomed and embraced its Benetton conservatives, a huge chunk of Republican voters are apparently motivated by the traditional divides. For Rubio, this is an existential challenge: What happens to the candidate of the future if the future isn't really here yet?
Ted Cruz has many enemies in the United States Senate, and only one pretty good friend: Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who, like Cruz, is a tea party darling. So it must have been welcome news in the Cruz camp when Lee came to South Carolina this week to hit the campaign trail with Cruz. (Remember, Donald Trump has been knocking Cruz as an unlikable, nasty guy, and pointing out that not one of his Senate colleagues has endorsed him.)
There was just one catch: Lee was campaigning with Cruz, but he wasn't endorsing him. In fact, hours before Lee gave a speech introducing and praising Cruz at a barbecue joint in Easley, South Carolina, Lee hailed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at a CrossFit gym in nearby Greenville, where he told an audience of conservatives, "I don't know anyone in Washington who knows the Bible quite as well as Marco Rubio does."
For now, Lee is undecided about whom to support in the Republican presidential primary and apparently playing the field. (He told reporters in Easley that he would endorse someone, sometime.) That has put him in an awkward position as a supporter of two competing candidates currently locked in a fight about who is or isn't a scoundrel. Even more awkward was that Lee delivered essentially the same speech for both Rubio and Cruz: a historical allegory about the lessons of the Boston Tea Party and the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
As Cruz tries to maintain second place in the South's first primary state, he has brought in a few reinforcements. Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Louie Gohmert of Texas (known for coining the term "terror babies") joined him to talk up Cruz's anti-immigration bona fides. But Rubio, who is fiercely challenging Cruz for second—both trail Trump in the polls—has greater local support and is traveling the state with the "cavalry." That's what Republican Sen. Tim Scott calls the South Carolina lawmakers in Rubio's corner: Gov. Nikki Haley, Rep. Trey Gowdy (of Benghazi committee fame), and Scott himself. Scott and Gowdy, who each display a half-decent comedic repartee at Rubio campaign events, teamed up for a radio ad on Rubio's behalf.
In a street fight like this, Cruz could use more prominent allies. But he couldn't even get his buddy Lee to go all the way with an endorsement.
All the Republican presidential candidates have seized on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to make the case for electing one of their own next fall, but Ben Carson is the first of this lot to exploit the justice's passing for a radio ad. In a spot running on conservative talk radio in South Carolina, a narrator declares that Scalia's unrelenting opposition to affirmative action was a defining part of his legacy and then promises that Carson will carry the torch for the late justice by promoting "compassionate action" if elected president.
Scalia believed that "we are just one race—American," the ad begins. Then it continues:
He thought affirmative action was wrong. That racial entitlement preserves the way of thinking that produced slavery, racial privilege, and hatred. More than anyone else running for president, Dr. Ben Carson knows about race—and hatred. He was raised in the ghettos of Detroit. He saw the face of hatred, bigotry, and violence firsthand. So when Dr. Carson says we should replace affirmative action with compassionate action, that it's a fairer way to treat people, we should listen to him.
The ad is consistent with what Carson has been saying throughout the campaign—that left-wing "political correctness" poses a greater threat to the United States than, say, the structural racism that affirmative action seeks to address. And with this radio spot, the only African American candidate in the race is seeking to win back GOP voters by citing the fellow whom many conservatives embraced as their movement's most prominent anti-PC crusader. As the ad notes—in something of a non sequitur—"Judge Scalia's life has taught us, if you’ve lived the life you believe in, you've earned the right to speak about what it has taught you. The rest is just political correctness."
Terry Fulton put this sign outside his store last fall "to let people know they don’t have to worry about a mass shooting over here at Fulton’s tackle box."
Michelle Wiles says her wake-up call came a few years back when she saw what Muslim immigrants had done to the small city of Hamtramck, Michigan, where her mother's family is from. A small, historically Polish community almost entirely surrounded by Detroit, Hamtramck used to be filled with Christmas decorations in the winter. These days, she says—as we sit in the office of a biofuels company near her home in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, one evening in December—"that's where they have blow horns."
"Where they blast out their call to prayer," she explains. "Which is, you know, to Allah."
Wiles, who is a member of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's South Carolina leadership team, believes large portions of Michigan have already been transformed into a de facto Islamic state that's off-limits to nonbelievers. "Just Google 'Christians stoned by Muslims in Dearborn'—there's plenty of video," she says. (I did, and I watched a group of beefy dudes with signs about "idolators" and "sodomites" being taunted by 14-year-olds.) Unless good Christian people take a stand, Wiles fears South Carolina might be next.
Jeb Bush can't escape Donald Trump, and with three days to go before South Carolina Republicans cast their votes in the first Southern primary, the frustration is starting to show. As he finished his stump speech at a golf course in Summerville, the former Florida governor made an uncharacteristically sarcastic appeal to conservative voters.
"I know how to beat Hillary Clinton, I know how to win, and I ask for your support on Saturday," Bush said. "It's all been decided, apparently—the pundits have made it all, we don't have to go vote, I guess. I should stop campaigning maybe, huh?"
"Nooo!" the audience replied.
"It's all been decided," Bush continued.
When it came time for questions, the subject turned to Trump—that is, Trump's never-ending thumping of Bush. A Bush supporter took the microphone to say he'd been looking forward to hearing Bush speak "without interruption." Bush laughed. But the man continued: "I've known for a long time you are the best-qualified person to be president of the United States, and I thank your for that, but I'm afraid that your message does not resonate to the national community."
The fellow suggested that was because Bush was overshadowed and outmaneuvered by Trump. "I was wondering if, because of your civility, if you could raise the bar in the next [debate] and try to be beyond the bullying? Because I think that's who you are, and I think they try to knock you off center, and it appears you do get knocked off center, like anyone would because of the insults to your family." He asked if Bush could demonstrate that he wouldn't be bullied—by politicians or foreign leaders—if elected president.
"First of all, I don't feel like I'm shaken up by the bully," Bush answered. "In fact, I'm the only guy going after the guy, because he's hijacking the party." Bush defended his debate posture as a mix of "loaf of bread" policy proposals and hard-nosed politics. Referring to his chief nemesis, he added, "Donald Trump's not a conservative, he's not a steady hand—for sure—and he's not a servant. It's all about him. And I'm the only guy going after him. I don't feel that he's intimidating. He's a bully! Punch him back in the nose!"
This wasn't convincing for everyone there. A few minutes later, another voter asked Bush about his lack of fight. "I think the campaign has been co-opted by the P.T. Barnum of our time," the man said. "And I think he is getting you off your message—your good message, and all the items that you shared with us today. And I think I would encourage you to emphasize those things more."
"I do!" Bush said, a bit too defensively. "This is called 'campaigning' right now."
"No, I mean, sir, on the more national level," the man said. "To the extent that you can. I know when you get into the debates it's a free-for-all sometimes. But I would encourage you to go not just on your record but on your plans."
The last questioner told Bush, "I love your brother, George W. Bush." And what he liked about that other Bush was his ability to play hardball when necessary. "Excuse me for saying in vernacular terms," this voter asked, but could Jeb Bush be a "son of a bitch"?
"Is that a question?" Bush responded. "Will I be an S.O.B., I think he said? I will be tough, I will be resolute, I will be firm, I will be clear, I will be determined—that's what leaders are. I won't cut and run. That's—I mean look, I'm following all this stuff like everyone else and I will tell you there are some politicians that are gifted at weaving through everything for their own ambitions. They're looking at the next step. They're moving to the next place. They're always trying to figure it out. That's not me. I run to the crisis." Was that a yes? Or a no?