U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio swept into a Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center hall Wednesday to speak to a few hundred S.C. voters — many undecided who they will vote for in the state’s GOP primary later this month.
The large GOP field — 17 candidates at one point — has made choosing a candidate before now difficult, some of those voters said.
Columbia public relations consultant Allison Dean Love said she has taken several online tests to see which candidate matches her opinions on issues. “I have learned, as I have gotten older, not to choose someone too soon,” she said. “I’m still educating myself on all these candidates.”
Rubio — running in third in South Carolina, according to polls — spoke for only 17 minutes, before heading to Washington to vote on North Korean sanctions.
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After his disappointing fifth-place finish in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Rubio faces intense competition to win over S.C. Republican voters looking for an option to GOP front-runners Donald Trump of New York and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Rubio’s rivals for those voters include Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“I like Kasich’s experience, but I like Rubio’s heart,” said Sandy Sweatman, a 63-year-old retired mental-health counselor from Columbia.
Rubio is supposed to be able to win voters from all of South Carolina’s different GOP constituencies — from evangelicals to fiscal conservatives. The Floridian seemed poised to emerge as the GOP establishment’s candidate before Saturday’s debate, where he stumbled.
Caryl Gayle, an Irmo real estate agent, said she is backing Rubio because he has the strong values needed to turn around the country. Gayle said she weighed Bush and Trump before choosing Rubio for the Feb. 20 GOP primary. “I just don’t think the other two can win in the end,” she said.
Rubio said Wednesday he is working to position himself as the conservative who can win, a message aimed at GOP voters afraid that Trump or Cruz would scare away some voters.
But he faces competition to be the anti-Trump, anti-Cruz candidate from Bush and Kasich, a pair of establishment candidates who beat Rubio in New Hampshire. Whether Tuesday’s results have hurt Rubio in South Carolina is unclear. No new S.C. polls have been released since presidential voting started earlier this month.
“This year, you don’t have to settle,” Rubio told the crowd. “This year, you can get someone that’s as conservative as anyone in this race, and yet can unify our party and grow the conservative movement.”
Despite getting beat up in New Hampshire, Rubio did not tear into his GOP opponents Wednesday. Instead, he saved barbs for the Democrats in the race — Bernie Sanders — “He’s a socialist, nice guy” — and Hillary Clinton — ”If she wins, she will probably have to pardon herself.”
Rubio also made fun of himself. After a rousing introduction from U.S. Sen Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, Rubio joked: “I should have taken Tim Scott to New Hampshire.”