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Under-the-radar Marco Rubio hopes to fly high in South Carolina

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Even before the blow-hard braggadocio of Donald Trump took him to the top of the national polls, there has always been a comfortable seat at the table for the loudest voice in the room when it comes to GOP presidential primaries — see Michele BachmanHerman Cain, and Ted Cruz, not to mention Barry Goldwater before them.

But one place cranking it up to 11 has been a losing gambit of late — perhaps surprisingly, South Carolina. That’s why U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio –beleaguered in the polls elsewhere — is doing so well there, writes Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times:

Senator Marco Rubio has no obvious, singular base of support for his presidential campaign. He is not running to be the favorite of social conservatives, as Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are. He is not aiming to be the most determined national security hawk, as Lindsey Graham is. And he does not have the Republican establishment roots that come with the Bush family name.

But if there is one group that encapsulates what the Rubio base is, it would probably be the Republican voters of South Carolina. The electorate here, with its close replication of all three legs of the Republican Party’s stool of fiscal, social and national defense conservatives, essentially fits the Rubio campaign’s playbook.

Mr. Rubio spent the last two days testing the waters here as he made a relatively quiet trip through the central and northeastern parts of the state, drawing curious but not especially large crowds. His approach at this point — six months before the first voting starts — is to keep his profile and the expectations around his campaign low, but not so low that he fades into the background of a noisy 16-person field.

Peters writes that in the Palmetto State, Rubio has found a strategic niche where he can mount a serious run next spring at bargain bin prices. Side-stepping the stampede in Iowa and New Hampshire, Rubio could remain in the first tier of candidates with a win or runner-up finish in South Carolina, the logic goes.

“The state fits his natural strengths,” said Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, who says he is neutral in the race but considers Mr. Rubio a friend.

“They’re running a lean, mean, almost a start-up campaign,” Mr. Moore added. “They’re agile. They relish the role of underdog, and those are the campaigns that have been successful.”

Mr. Rubio’s campaign team and the “super PAC” supporting him are heavy on South Carolina talent. His campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, ran Mitt Romney’s 2008 operation in the state. Mr. Sullivan also worked as the campaign manager for Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina who now leads the Heritage Foundation.

The super PAC supporting Mr. Rubio, Conservative Solutions PAC, is based in the state’s capital, Columbia, and is run by J. Warren Tompkins, a veteran of state politics.

“In South Carolina, because of the complexion of the primary electorate, he is positioned across all segments,” Mr. Tompkins said of Mr. Rubio. “He is very clearly on the right side of foreign policy and national defense. He is very clearly right on the issues of social conservative voters and family issues. And he is definitely in line with the economic conservatives of South Carolina.”

Whether it can all come together for Rubio at exactly the right time without a totalizing, Jeb-and-Hillary-style campaign, however, remains to be seen.

At some point, though, Mr. Rubio will need to break out.

Mikee Johnson, the chairman of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, told what he said was an instructive story about the state of the race. Mr. Johnson said that when he donated blood the other day, he asked the clinicians if they knew who was running for president. “They could name three names: Bush, Trump and Hillary. There’s something to be said for that,” he said, before adding, “But it’s early.”

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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