Marco Rubio's South Carolina strategy: Another 3rd place victory

Story highlights

  • Marco Rubio's South Carolina expectations: Beat John Kasich and Jeb Bush
  • Rubio's campaign is playing the same expectations game it did going into the Iowa caucuses

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN)Marco Rubio has one mission in South Carolina: Beat John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Soundly.

And as a result, present a new face of the GOP that plays to Rubio's strengths.
"Take a picture of this, because the new group of conservatives that's taking over America looks like a Benetton commercial," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said as she closed Rubio's Greenville rally here Thursday standing alongside African-American Sen. Tim Scott, young GOP star Rep. Trey Gowdy and the Cuban-American Rubio.
    Rubio's campaign is playing the same expectations game it did going into the Iowa caucuses: Don't predict a win or even second-place finish, pick up as many delegates as you can, and stay in the race.
    Just like Iowa, Rubio wants a third place finish in South Carolina to be perceived as a big win.
    The logic is that once Rubio can knock the other establishment candidates out of the GOP primary by putting enough distance between them, their support will coalesce behind him and finally push him ahead of front-runner Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz -- as long as he can stay close enough to them in the delegate count.
    The campaign is exuding a quiet confidence amid standing-room-only crowds across the Palmetto State, especially after snagging arguably the highest-profile endorsements up for grabs in the state, Haley, Scott and Gowdy.
    They also feel that Rubio's core messages will play well with South Carolina voters. He's been working his faith into his stump speech in the religious and evangelical-heavy state, as well as bringing his veteran brother to several events and using him as a surrogate among South Carolina's large military population.
    "It's starting to have the same feel on the ground as what we were feeling in Iowa. It's just a lot of organic energy for Marco and for his message," Rubio senior strategist Todd Harris said in Aiken, South Carolina, this week. "And I know what the polls say right now, but I think we're going to surprise people this weekend."
    Rubio finished third in Iowa and sits in third place in the polls here. According to CNN's poll of polls over the past week, Trump sits at 35%, Cruz at 19% and Rubio at 15%, with Bush next in line at 10%.
    New Hampshire was a stumbling block for Rubio, where he came in fifth after a dismal debate there.
    But he has clearly been re-energized and riding high in South Carolina, drawing from his life in sports to bounce back.
    "I was a little bit disappointed by what happened in New Hampshire and I thought I had myself to blame," Rubio said in CNN's town hall in Greenville on Wednesday. "The lessons that I applied to that disappointment came from sports. ... You've got to put that behind you because you've got another play coming up and you've got to make up for it on the next play."
    Like in Iowa, the campaign is careful to not aim too high. They know that with proportional delegate allocations, they only need to hang in long enough to be seen as the anti-Trump.
    "If we beat Sen. Cruz here, it will be a sign that we got more votes than he did," Harris glibly told reporters in Greenville when asked if that outcome would send a message.
    The Cruz campaign tried to get back on offense on Friday after Rubio missed a conservative confab the night before. Rubio was slated to speak at the Conservative Review Convention in Greenville on Thursday night, but minutes before his slated spot, it was announced that he would not be making it.
    The campaign cited a "delay" in the schedule, but Cruz, who was also speaking at the event, seized on Rubio missing the event geared toward the right flank of the party.
    Cruz held court in front of the favorable crowd and his campaign gleefully painted Rubio as scared of true conservatives.
    "Rubio turns tail and runs from CR Convention. Not his crowd," Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler tweeted.