f there was a moment during the early primary season when you could almost feel the self-delusion infecting the Republican establishment, it was on the night of the South Carolina primary, when an utterly deflated Jeb Bush, onetime shoo-in for the nomination, suspended his campaign, and Marco Rubio, the supposed “last best hope” of the GOP, declared a sort of victory without actually winning. The Florida senator had come in second, barely, eking out a win over Ted Cruz by two-tenths of a point – though, as it would be argued incessantly, this was a score, given that Rubio came in fifth in New Hampshire and had almost been left for dead.
Some 400 South Carolinians had shown up for Rubio’s election-night watch party, which was held in a cavernous event space in Columbia. A series of huge, looming TV screens broadcast Fox News. It was absolutely clear, and had been clear within an hour of the polls closing, that Donald Trump had not only won the state, but had won by a small landslide, just as he’d done in New Hampshire, and would later do in Nevada, Alabama, Georgia and even in Rubio’s home state of Florida, as he marched ever closer to the nomination. The Fox commentators treated Trump’s 10-point lead as data from some parallel universe. “I don’t think it’s in any way a foregone conclusion,” opined Charles Krauthammer, a Fox regular who has effusively spoken of Rubio as “Kennedyesque” (and who Trump has called a loser). Krauthammer pondered what the race might look like were Ben Carson and John Kasich, like Bush, to quit. There was no indication of this happening then, but whittling down what was once a 17-candidate field to a two- or three-way contest had been a fantasy of the GOP cognoscenti for months. “Look, Trump got 31 percent of the vote,” said Krauthammer, though actually, Trump got 33 percent. “In a three-way race, that’s a dead heat!”
Strains of nondescript country-rock music swelled the room – the campaign recently gave up playing Axwell and Ingrosso’s “Something New” after getting a cease-and-desist letter from one of the Swedish DJs – as Rubio strode triumphantly onstage, followed by his wife, Jeanette, and four children. Rubio has one of the most perfect-looking families in national politics. He also looks as if he could be running for president of the Young Republicans, with a smooth, unworried face, full head of dark-brown, perfectly parted hair, and an easy, seemingly genuine million-watt smile. “When I look at Marco Rubio, I think of one of those dressed-up little-boy figurines spinning around on a birthday cake,” says the writer T.D. Allman, author of Finding Florida: The True Story of the Sunshine State, who also sees Rubio as an equivalent of the Florida housing bubble.