There was a story about Marco Rubio in the front section of the New York Times this morning. Not on the front page—the front page was for “Trump Fires Back at Sharp Rebuke by Pope Francis”—but page A18. “Rubio’s Expectations Up in South Carolina Vote” was the headline.
The story of Rubio’s elevated expectations began thus:
CHAPIN, S.C. — Aglow in floodlights and beaming with confidence, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina looked every bit like a potential national ticket here on Wednesday, giving his supporters a glimpse of what many Republicans have long coveted: a multicultural new look for a party hungry to be competitive in November.
It went on:
After nervously keeping expectations low, Mr. Rubio’s aides are suddenly making bold predictions of a strong finish. With good news rolling in every day — his crowds regularly topping 1,000, his poll numbers climbing and endorsements streaming in from Ms. Haley and Senator Tim Scott — Mr. Rubio is hoping to reset his campaign.
What are these bold predictions of a strong finish? Senator Scott told the Times:
“He might even catch second place. And if we catch on fire, we have a long-distance shot at first.”
He might even catch...second place, you say? According to the Times, Rubio “has set the bar for himself at third place.” Dare to believe it: After his third-place finish in Iowa and his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, Rubio’s campaign is eager to get out the message that he can finish third once more.
The Times describes Rubio busily working the political territory of South Carolina, targeting educated and prosperous younger Republicans, addressing crowds with “renewed confidence”:
He wears a big smile. People who come to see him are grabbing yard signs and literature.
Yard signs! If this news story about Marco Rubio were a photograph of Marco Rubio, it would look like this:
That’s a screenshot of Marco Rubio offering his follow-up commentary to Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing argument with the pope. Look closer, where his hair falls to his right:
It is not possible to say with confidence that Marco Rubio is now wearing a toupee. Possibly he is wearing hair extensions. It might even be that the strange alienation of one piece of his hair from the rest of his hair is the product of sloppy and desperate work with hairspray and a comb.
What is clear is that Rubio’s hair, which less than two months ago seemed to be his strongest presidential attribute, is failing him. Here is a picture of the back of his head, taken on the campaign trail in South Carolina:
The notion that Marco Rubio had a sustainable head of hair was nothing more than a fleeting illusion. It was nice to believe in, but at some point the evidence must be reckoned with.
The notion that Marco Rubio is a real presidential candidate never attained even that level of credibility. It’s true that this is a large and politically diverse nation, and a few early primary or caucus results don’t necessarily prove anything. Bill Clinton got cuffed around early in 1992 before the contests moved to his more comfortable terrain in the South.
But Rubio is being cuffed around early before the campaign moves on to more states where he will be cuffed around. A Times infographic on the outlook for the various candidates explained, “Even if Mr. Rubio loses most early states, he could be in a good position for a comeback by winning Florida, Illinois and Ohio.” Rubio is polling in third place in Florida, with 15.7 percent, 24 points behind Donald Trump. Nobody has bothered doing current polls for Illinois or Ohio. Of the states where there are poll numbers, Rubio is leading in exactly zero.
Like every Republican candidate other than Trump and Ted Cruz, Rubio is running on the premise that the voters will have to end up choosing someone other than Trump or Cruz, even though the voters show no sign of doing any such thing. This means grinding out defeat after defeat in a war of attrition in which the also-rans keep weakening one another, hoping to use the leverage of third-place finishes to force out fourth-place finishers.
It’s a grim outlook for all of them. But where John Kasich is content to wait in the weeds till someone sends out a search party for a sane-seeming candidate, and where Jeb Bush is duty bound to believe that his name and his money will somehow make a difference, Rubio has been running, in theory, as an inspiring candidate, whose youth and charisma were supposed to electrify the public.
Now the public has seen him. If they were going to get excited about Marco Rubio, they would have gotten excited by now. They aren’t.