COLUMBIA, S.C. – U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will win South Carolina’s most Republican coveted endorsement of the 2016 presidential race when Gov. Nikki Haley announces her support at a Chapin rally Wednesday evening, a source with knowledge of the governor’s decision told the State newspaper.
Haley, the state’s most popular GOP politician in polls, has decided to back the establishment candidate considered to be in best position to challenge Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has shared advice on education issues with the governor and helped her raise money for her re-election bid in 2014, also was considered a top contender to win Haley’s endorsement.
But he has lagged in recent South Carolina polls, falling to fifth in the six-candidate GOP field. Rubio sits third.
Haley’s decision was a bit of a reversal in the past day. The governor told reporters Tuesday that she had not made up her mind on who to back in the 2016 race.
She endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. While the former Massachusetts governor won the GOP nomination, he lost the South Carolina primary to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, breaking the state’s three-decade streak of voting for the candidate who landed on the November ballot.
Haley has become a favorite to make vice presidential short lists after her handling of last year’s Charleston shooting and successful call to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. She gave the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last month.
The governor’s endorsement comes at a critical time for Rubio.
The Florida senator needs momentum in South Carolina after finishing fifth in New Hampshire after a rattled debate performance. Rubio trails Trump and Cruz in the Palmetto State with three days ahead of the South Carolina GOP presidential primary Saturday.
Haley joins U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Spartanburg Republican who heads a special panel investigating the Benghazi attack, in endorsing Rubio.
Rubio has had success wooing financial support in the state.
He met major GOP donor Hank Scott, chief executive of an Allendale lumber products company, at the South Carolina GOP party’s annual dinner in 2012. Scott would later choose to back Rubio for president and donate a total of $200,000 to a pro-Rubio PAC, the largest contributions tied to the presidential race from a South Carolinian.
Haley and Rubio share similar backgrounds. They are both 44-year-old children of immigrants who were elected to their current seats in the tea party fervor of 2010.
Rubio first met Haley when they were first running for their current offices. The senator spoke at the South Carolina GOP party’s annual dinner in 2012, a way for him to start building relationships in early-primary state.
They have communicated while Rubio has been on the trail. The senator also has said during stops in South Carolina this week how Haley would make a good vice president.
Haley has been battling with Trump. She said she was referring to him as one of the “angriest voices” in her State of the Union response and criticized him over his combative campaigning.
The daughter of Indian immigrants called Trump’s proposal to ban temporarily Muslims from entering the country an embarrassment to the GOP and un-American.
Trump has said Haley is not doing enough to protect South Carolina from Syrian refugees and the possibility of Guantanamo prisoners being transferred to the Navy brig outside Charleston. Haley has protested both issues to federal officials.
Haley has not criticized Cruz, but she has not kept in regular contact with the Texas senator, who like Rubio, is the son of Cuban immigrant.
Bush pushed hard for her support. His father and brother, both former presidents who won the South Carolina presidential primary, have reached out to Haley in recent weeks.
But Bush is lagging in South Carolina. Bush sits in fourth in polls with several recent surveys putting him behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich in fifth.
Bush told NBC News on Tuesday that Haley’s endorsement is “the most powerful meaningful one in the state.”
Asked what kind of message would be sent by not getting her nod, Bush said: “It sends a signal that (I’ve) got to work harder.”
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