Bush’s exit after S.C. primary could mean more supporters for Rubio

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush helped supporters get a selfie group-shot after a rally Monday at the North Charleston Convention Center. Wade Spees/Staff February 15, 2016

WASHINGTON -- On the debate stage, Jeb Bush received plenty of rhetorical punches from his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination.

At their individual rallies the night of the South Carolina primary, those same opponents – even Donald Trump -- suddenly had very nice things to say about the former Florida governor.

That’s because Bush had just dropped out of the race after a disappointing finish in the Palmetto State, meaning his staff, his donors and his voters are now up for grabs.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the Bush supporters now switch allegiances to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who finished second in the S.C. primary Saturday night.

At this point, Rubio is considered the “establishment” choice for the Republican presidential ticket, a Cuban-American with conservative credentials who is casting himself as both the future of the party and the only candidate who can bring the party together.

He finished in second place in South Carolina Saturday night, riding high on endorsements from Gov. Nikki Haley and two influential Republicans in the state’s Congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy.

He might also be the next candidate to make national defense and security a centerpiece of his campaign platform. Bush picked up that mantle from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and in turn won his endorsement following Graham’s own exit presidential campaign last year.

By Saturday afternoon, it already was starting to look like Rubio was gaining momentum for his positions on those issues. It was the reason U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said he voted for Rubio on Saturday, altogether bypassing Bush, who at that time was still in the game.

On Sunday morning, Bush allies were starting to migrate over to Rubio, including U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, whose home state of Nevada hosts the next scheduled GOP caucus on Tuesday.

It’s not clear what Graham will do, if anything. He has largely stayed quiet since introducing Bush to supporters Saturday night, the culmination of weeks of efforts to help him gain traction in the Palmetto State.

“The people of South Carolina have done their part and voted in large numbers today. I, along with others, have heard your voice,” Graham said in a short written statement afterwards. “I hope and pray the Republican Party can unite and find our way through these difficult times to win an election we can’t afford to lose.”

Whether Bush would personally endorse Rubio is another story. The two men have known each other for a long time in Republican circles in Florida but sources say the relationship has disintegrated since they became opponents for the nomination.

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.