COLUMBIA, S.C.—Donald Trump had just easily won the South Carolina primary, and it wasn’t yet clear who would come in second. But the mood at Marco Rubio’s post-primary celebration in a converted warehouse here was jubilant nonetheless.
It was, said Senator Tim Scott, “an amazing finish.” The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, said, “We just woke the country up. We changed this race. It is on the move.” Rubio proclaimed, “This has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination.”
All that for a second-place finish, with just 22.5 percent of the vote—less than a quarter. Rubio may not win many, or even any, convention delegates for his showing here, and critics—such as the other candidates—will continue to point out that he still hasn’t won a single state. But Rubio has clearly recovered from his New Hampshire setback and begun to acquire some momentum among the majority of the Republican party that isn’t voting for Trump.
“Rubio will be the nominee,” Milton Moore, an older man with a syrupy accent, told me confidently. “When you drop the others out, that brings him up. He’ll face off with Trump, and then people will understand that he’s more stable, diplomatic, charismatic individual.” Moore, who described his profession as “a rich M-F,” was a fundraiser for George W. Bush, and his wife Jean was a state office manager for the 43rd president. But they said they never felt inspired by Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race on Saturday after coming in fourth.