Former Florida governor exits race in which he was the early front-runner
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CFP) — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida rode a wave of last-minute support to surge into a tie for second place with U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in the pivotal South Carolina primary.
Meanwhile, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush–who had been the front-runner early in the 2016 race–dropped out after finishing a distant fourth in the February 20 vote.
That leaves Rubio and Cruz as the only Southerners left in the race for the White House, which at one point had featured nine candidates from the region.
The two senators each took 22 percent in the Palmetto State, running 10 points behind the winner, Donald Trump. Rubio’s margin over Cruz was less than 1,100 votes. out of nearly 738,000 cast.
But after finishing fifth in New Hampshire, catching Cruz was a significant coup for Rubio in his quest to become the mainstream alternative to Trump, particularly now that Bush is out of the race.
“After tonight, this has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination,” Rubio told supporters at a rally in Columbia, where he was flanked by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Her endorsement of Rubio in the closing days of the campaign is being credited with helping his strong finish.
But across town, Cruz, who won Iowa and came in third in New Hampshire, insisted that it was his campaign that had defied expectations.
“The screaming you hear now from across the Potomac is the Washington cartel in full terror that the conservative grassroots are rising up,” Cruz said.
However, while both senators were claiming a moral victory, Trump not only won statewide but in all six congressional districts, which means that under the rules of the South Carolina GOP, he will get all 50 of the delegates up for grabs.
An emotional Bush announced his departure to supporters in Columbia after winning less than 8 percent of the vote. He finished sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire.
“I’m proud of the campaign that we’ve run to unify our country and to advocate conservative solutions that would give more Americans the opportunity to rise up and reach their God-given potential,” he said. “But the people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision.”
The son and brother of presidents, Bush started the race as the early front-runner, fortified by a super-PAC that had raised more than $100 million. But Trump’s entry into the race took the wind out of Bush’s political sails, and he never recovered.
Bush also had to deal with a challenge from Rubio, who had been a close political ally when they served together in Tallahassee.
After Bush’s withdrawal, Rubio offered an olive branch, expressing his “incredible affection and admiration” for a man he called “the greatest governor in the history of Florida.”
“Jeb Bush has many things to be proud of,” Rubio said.
Cruz, too, spoke warmly about Bush, saying he had brought “honor and dignity” to the race and that he was “a man who didn’t go to the gutter and engage in insults and attacks”–a not-too-veiled swipe at the front-running Trump.