THE MORNING PLUM:

It’s now a three man race! That’s Marco Rubio’s takeaway (which is shared by some analysts) from the outcome of the South Carolina primary, in which Donald Trump stomped to a 10 point victory, earning the status of presumed frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Rubio barely edged Ted Cruz for second place, and the narrative quickly took shape that Rubio would now emerge as the primary competitor with Trump in the battle for the soul of the GOP.

Rubio had recently been appearing at events with South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and he’s been declaring that he is the candidate (young, dynamic) to re-purpose conservatism for a new generation of ethnically diverse Republican leaders in the 21st century. As he declared in South Carolina: “The children of the Reagan Revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership.”

Which raises a question: Does the GOP that Rubio hopes to lead even exist in any meaningful sense?

Rubio’s big idea is that nominating him will send a message to America that the Republican Party is fully prepared to embrace and lead diversifying America — in short, that it is not captive to the xenophobic forces and hostility towards demographic and cultural change that Trump has unleashed and embodies. Rubio’s “children of the Reagan Revolution” line suggests he hopes to remake the GOP in the eyes of voters who were born during the Reagan years (35 and under) or politically came of age during those years (people who are in their 40s, as Rubio is). The photo ops with Haley seem designed to portray a GOP that is more comforting to cosmopolitan and suburban swing voters.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio outlined the stakes of the 2016 election for an audience in Reno, Nev., saying he would be "a president for all Americans." (Reuters)

It is true that if Rubio were nominated, he’d probably be better positioned than any other GOP candidate to make a good pitch to young voters, Latinos, and suburbanites. But consider what Rubio has had to do, in substantive terms, to get even to this point. If anything, Rubio is not the candidate who confronted Trump’s xenophobia most forcefully. The candidate who was most willing to mount a sustained moral argument against Trumpism — Jeb Bush — is now gone from the race.

Rubio has arguably done as much to surrender to the terms of the debate that Trump has laid down as he has to challenge them. He has shrouded his past support for legalization of the 11 million in clouds of vagueness about the need to secure the border first. He has now echoed Ted Cruz’s hard-line vow to end Obama’s executive action protecting DREAMers — many of whom have spent most of their lives in America — from deportation. He has on occasion tip toed around Trump’s most wretched anti-Muslim demagoguery. More broadly, as Jonathan Cohn argues, Rubio is not at all moderate on a number of other issues; arguably there is no candidate left who actually represents the party’s moderate voters.

“The GOP has a choice between being the Party of Trump (which means doubling down on working class white voters), or moving in the direction of a more optimistic and solutions oriented party that appeals to a wide variety of Americans with diverse backgrounds,” conservative writer Matt Lewis, who has probed the true makeup of today’s GOP in his new book, “Too Dumb to Fail,” tells me.

The question is whether Rubio will frame this choice by actually taking on Trumpism more directly, and if so, whether the nomination can be won this way. He may of course end up doing both of those things successfully. The Post reports today that Rubio’s strategy for the upcoming Super Tuesday contests is designed to “run up his score with suburban and upwardly mobile, mainstream voters in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis and Nashville.”

If Rubio can chart this more moderate course to the nomination, his (apparent) bet on the true instincts and makeup of the GOP electorate may prove right. Alternatively, Rubio may try to seriously take on Trumpism but find himself swamped by Trump’s appeal to blue collar whites, evangelicals, and older voters. (It’s worth noting that Trump’s appeal is proving broader than that, reaching into the ranks of voters Rubio hopes to reach.) Or Rubio — and this is the key test — may not seriously take on Trumpism at all. The bottom line is that we will soon learn whether the GOP that Rubio hopes to lead really exists.

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* RUBIO HOPES TO HAWK A MORE INCLUSIVE GOP:  The Post reports that Rubio’s rhetoric is increasingly sounding like it is pitched to a general election audience, with quotes such as this one:

“Just this afternoon, I was on stage receiving the endorsement of an Indian American governor from South Carolina, who has endorsed a Cuban American from Florida. And I was standing next to the African American Republican senator from South Carolina. That sounds pretty minority to me….We are the party of everyone. We are going to grow this party and take our message to everyone.”

Okay, but as noted above, the real test will be whether Rubio actually takes on Trumpism.

* RNC CHAIR SAYS PARTY WILL BACK TRUMP: On ABC News’s This Week, RNC chair Reince Priebus said the party will of course back Donald Trump is the nominee, and responded to those who predict a Trump nomination will split the party:

“Winning is the antidote to a lot of things. And so the name of the game is winning in November. If we win in November all those armchair quarterbacks will fall in line and they’ll — they’ll obviously be pretty pleased…who the nominee is going to be is not my choice and — and obviously, uh, we’re going to support whoever that is.”

Of course they’ll “fall in line” behind Trump, and all that stuff Republicans said about Trump posing a dire threat to the American way of life will be forgotten. Why does anyone doubt this will happen?

* BERNIE FACES A STEEP CHALLENGE: Sanders lost big among African Americans in Nevada on Saturday, and FiveThirtyEight looks ahead to what he faces in coming contests:

Many of the upcoming primaries will feature a much higher percentage of black voters than Nevada did….their share in South Carolina will be much higher (55 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were black in 2008)….on Super Tuesday 63 percent of the delegates up for grabs will be in contests with a higher share of African-Americans than Nevada. Better yet for Clinton, 35 percent of delegates will be up for grabs in contests with at least double the share of African-Americans as Nevada.

The thing to watch is whether Clinton posts another big win among African Americans in South Carolina next Saturday. If so, that’ll suggest her advantage is holding.

* BUSH DONORS SLOW TO MOVE TO RUBIO: The New York Times reports that after Jeb Bush’s disastrous seven percent showing in South Carolina, Rubio allies are pressing Jeb’s donors to join him in an effort to stop Donald Trump. But:

Republicans aware of the conversations taking place among many of the party’s biggest financiers on Sunday described a wariness from many Bush supporters who felt burned by having given so much to a losing cause….There was little evidence of either a partywide distress call or donors moving off the bench en masse toward Mr. Rubio, who has positioned himself to be the most palatable and electable remaining option for the Republican elites.

The lack of urgency is surprising, given that there is barely more than a week to go until Super Tuesday awards 595 delegates in a series of contests in which Trump is expected to clean up.

* RUBIO ISN’T ACTUALLY MODERATE OR SENSIBLE: Paul Krugman writes that even if Rubio is emerging as the sane establishment pick, his ideas about economics (huge tax cuts for the rich; a balanced budget amendment) are as fraudulent as those of Trump or Cruz:

Mr. Rubio’s consolidation of establishment support isn’t a testament to his good sense. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, a reward for his willingness to echo party orthodoxy even, or perhaps especially, when it’s nonsense. So don’t let anyone tell you that the Republican primary is a fight between a crazy guy and someone reasonable. It’s idiosyncratic, self-invented crankery versus establishment-approved crankery, and it’s not at all clear which is worse.

This is probably a hopeless cause — Rubio will be widely depicted as the moderate alternative to Trump regardless of his actual positions — but making these points is at least worth trying.

* TRUMP HOLDS HUGE LEAD IN MASSACHUSETTS: A forthcoming Emerson College poll will show a huge Trump lead in Massachusetts, which is noteworthy, because it’s one of the big delegate rich Super Tuesday states that is not in the south. Also notable: the poll will also show that Clinton and Sanders are tied in the state.
* DEMS USE SUPREME COURT FIGHT TO BLUDGEON GOP SENATORS: The Hill reports that Dems have hatched a strategy to bash vulnerable GOP Senators over the refusal to consider an Obama nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, by linking them to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom oppose any action:

Those senators have to make a choice: Pit themselves against the GOP presidential field by agreeing to take up President Obama’s nominee, or face a attack ads suggesting they’re part of Washington’s “dysfunction” by fighting to keep the seat vacant.

If those Senators are driven by worry about what the base thinks more than anything else, this is unlikely to move them much. The question is whether Dems can extract maximum political pain along the way.