COLUMBIA, S.C. — Ted Cruz on Saturday night placed third in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, narrowly trailing Marco Rubio for a disappointing finish in a state that seemed tailor-made for the U.S. senator from Texas.
With all precincts reporting, Rubio led Cruz by just two-tenths of a percentage point, 22.5 percent to 22.3 percent. Billionaire Donald Trump was already projected the winner by the time Cruz took the stage at his election-night party and declared himself "effectively tied" with Rubio, his Senate colleague from Florida.
Cruz, whose sway with social conservatives was expected to propel him to an at least second-place finish here, nonetheless argued that he had defied expectations against Rubio, who had the backing of some of the state's top Republicans. Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, also made the case that he continues to be the most viable alternative to Trump, who notched his second straight win.
"If you are a conservative, this is where you belong because only one strong conservative is in a position to win this race," Cruz said, reminding supporters his is the "only campaign that can beat and has beaten Donald Trump."
Even before most results were in, Cruz's campaign moved quickly to portray Rubio's potential second-place finish as bad for the Florida senator because he had the support of Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy. Speaking with Texas reporters backstage after his remarks, Cruz offered a pointed case for why Rubio has nothing to celebrate at this juncture in the race.
"Marco, even with $50 million in advertising, has yet to finish better than third place in any of the primary states," Cruz said. "We’ll see what he does here. He has yet to demonstrate he can win."
Asked if he still thought the primary could be over by the end of March — a prediction he made about two months ago — Cruz said he still sees it as "entirely possible." Cruz struck an optimistic note as he looked forward to the group of mostly southern states, including Texas, that are set to vote March 1 in what is being called the "SEC primary."
Yet Cruz's showing in South Carolina seemed to call into question a number of central tenets of his campaign: its vaunted ground game, its appeal to evangelical voters and, most of all, its ability to slow Trump's march to the nomination. On the stage, Cruz argued it was still a two-man race between himself and Trump, pointing out that the billionaire "relentlessly attacks us and ignores the other candidates."
The GOP field was already narrowing as results came in, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announcing he was suspending his campaign. Cruz supporters greeted the news with loud cheers at the Texas senator's election night party here at the South Carolina state fairgrounds.
Speaking with reporters after Cruz's remarks, campaign manager Jeff Roe said Bush's departure marks the beginning of a new phase of the contest, with voters facing clearer choices than ever. "The simpler the race is, the better it is for us to get our message out," Roe said.
Trump's win came easily, with a number of news networks projecting his victory less than a half hour after polls closed. Few close to Cruz had expected him to topple the billionaire, who had double-digit polling leads in the state for months, and by the time voters went to the polls Saturday morning, the primary appeared to be a battle for second place between Cruz and Rubio.
Like he did in Iowa, Cruz relied on an expansive turnout operation in South Carolina that centered on mobilizing evangelical Christians. Cruz had more than 11,000 volunteers and 300 pastors backing him but ended up failing to win a single county. Exit polls also showed Cruz trailing Trump, 31 percent to 27 percent, among those voters describing themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.
South Carolina represented the most contentious period of the race so far for Cruz. His campaign was beset by allegations of dishonesty and deception — some more credible than others — that tested his longtime vow to take the high road when things got nasty. He most sharply clashed with Trump and Rubio over campaign tactics, memorably calling a news conference Wednesday to extensively respond to a threat by Trump to sue him over a TV ad questioning the billionaire's anti-abortion credentials.
In the final days of his campaign here, Cruz had put a nearly exclusive emphasis on the Supreme Court and national security, a dominant issue in this military-heavy state. Following the death a week ago of Justice Antonin Scalia, Cruz presented himself as the candidate who could be most trusted to appoint a conservative replacement, suggesting a President Trump would instead tilt the court left.
Cruz's focus on Scalia took him off the campaign trail for part of Saturday, when the senator traveled to Washington, D.C., for the justice's funeral. Cruz, who had criticized President Barack Obama for not attending the service, had initially planned to skip it as well.
Cruz now heads to Nevada, which is set to hold its caucuses Tuesday and where Cruz is again trailing Trump in the polls. The senator is expected to stump there from Sunday afternoon through Election Night.