- - Thursday, March 3, 2016

Having 17 candidates officially declare in the Republican presidential primary was always a bit of a tease.

We told ourselves that having such a deep bench would almost certainly result in the selection of a superior brand of Republican compared to what we settled for in 2008 and 2012. We told ourselves after eight years of living in an Obamanation we were more than ready to meet the challenge of obtaining victory in a must-win election. We told ourselves that rarely has a time been more ripe for advocating conservative principles since the Reagan Revolution.

Oh, and don’t forget our fail safe. We told ourselves Hillary Clinton was too damaged to beat us in the end, anyway.

But it was never going to be as simple or easy as that – especially down the stretch.

By the time we got to Super Tuesday, there was probably always going to be an establishment zombie still hanging around who never really caught fire with anyone except his own inner child. Meet John Kasich.

There probably was also going to be a self-styled man (or woman) of the people who had no business being in the final five but stubbornly refused to acknowledge reality and get out. Meet Ben Carson.

And, most importantly, there was probably always going to be at least three candidates – conservative, moderate and outsider — who formed a legitimate pack of frontrunners coming out of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But some frontrunners are more legitimate than others, and that’s really the crux of the matter as we look ahead to a March filled with madness that has nothing to do with college basketball.

After Super Tuesday, here’s where the delegate math stands among the top three remaining according to AP (1,237 required to win the nomination pre-convention):

Donald Trump: 319 (26% of the way there)
Ted Cruz: 226 (18% of the way there)
Marco Rubio: 110 (9% of the way there)

In other words, Mr. Trump (52%) and Mr. Cruz (57%) need roughly the same percentage of delegates the rest of the way to win the nomination outright. Which brings us to Mr. Rubio, who’s so far back in third that even if he won his home state of Florida tomorrow would still be in third. Except as the polls in Florida are showing, that’s hardly a sure-thing for the former GOP wunderkind.

According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Mr. Rubio trails Mr. Trump by almost 20 points in the state that anointed him the original Tea Party darling back in 2010.

So what happened here? Mr. Rubio and the Gang of 8 happened. See, both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio got elected as conservative Hispanics promising to stop amnesty in the Senate. Mr. Cruz kept his word, Mr. Rubio didn’t.

That’s why on Tuesday, the people who know Mr. Cruz the best in Texas gave him a resounding victory that vaulted him right back into the thick of the race. If the people who know Mr. Rubio the best in Florida don’t do the same in two weeks, then Mr. Rubio isn’t just toast in this primary cycle. His political career may be as well.

That’s stunning to say for a talented, likable and smart 44-year old Hispanic politician who would make a great face of a party one day. But this is what happens when your base feels betrayed. It’s quite likely that had Mr. Rubio never stepped in front of a podium for a photo op with Chuck Schumer and John McCain he’d be running away with this nomination, but he did. And likely committed the worst waste of political capital since George H.W. Bush went back on his “read my lips no new taxes” pledge as president.

Just ask Rick Santorum what happens when you betray your base. He clearly saw something of himself when he dropped out and endorsed Mr. Rubio a month ago (and then embarrassingly couldn’t name one Rubio accomplishment during his brief televised stint as a campaign surrogate). Back in the day, Mr. Santorum was going to be the face of the party, but then he got into leadership and went from champion of the grassroots to establishment deal-maker. Finding himself endorsing the likes of pro-child killing candidates Christie Todd Whitman and Arlen Specter in primaries.

Mr. Santorum turned his back on his base, and as a result suffered one of the worst losses by an incumbent U.S. senator in American election history. He re-emerged in the 2012 cycle as the last not-Mitt Romney candidate standing, and was the champion of the grassroots by default once more. But when he tried to run for president again this cycle he was barely an afterthought, as primary voters moved on to candidates like Mr. Cruz that hadn’t betrayed them.

It’s a testament to Mr. Rubio’s likability and talent that he’s even got this far in a cycle that has been unforgiving to candidates with a sniff of the feckless GOP brand on them. But when he failed to even reach the 20 percent threshold for delegates in several states that are GOP strongholds on Super Tuesday, and his only win thus far is Walter Mondale’s 1984 firewall, it’s clear the base once more sent him a message.

This is not your time, and you owe us a mea culpa.

However, any Catholic worth his salt like Mr. Rubio should know “faith without works is dead.” The base doesn’t want a speech, or some tear-felt confession. They want an act of contrition. And Mr. Rubio has a rare opportunity here to both do the noble and politically expedient thing.

If Mr. Rubio drops out and endorses Mr. Cruz prior to Saturday’s contests in Kansas and Louisiana, it’s likely Mr. Cruz will win them in a cakewalk and have the momentum heading into Florida the following week. Mr. Rubio’s existing support combined with Mr. Cruz’s, and Mr. Carson likely out of the race, would give Mr. Cruz a real shot to win the state and become the frontrunner.

On the other hand, the likelihood Mr. Rubio’s brand can be rehabilitated to the point of overcoming a 20-point deficit among people who already know him so well by March 15th isn’t high. Just look at how poorly Mr. Rubio finished in Alabama and Georgia on Super Tuesday, two states that share several television markets with Florida and thus know him well. Mr. Rubio was annihilated.

The time is now for Mr. Rubio to use his leverage and pick up the phone and call Mr. Cruz for a unity ticket (or at least a prominent place within Team Cruz). If he waits past this weekend it’s likely too late to effect the outcome in Florida, and then if he loses his home state by even one vote his political future could be over.

Mr. Rubio says he’s the guy to unite the party. Well, now here’s his chance to prove it. This is more than a 2016 decision for Mr. Rubio. This is a 20-year decision. Think long and hard, Marco, and see the bigger picture this time (like you didn’t with the Gang of 8).

As they like to say in my kids favorite movies “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” — “make good choices.”

(Steve Deace is the author of the book “A Nefarious Plot.”)

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