Marco Rubio, kept out of the presidential conversation this summer with the juggernaut of Donald Trump and the upstarts of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, has been looking for a way to wedge into the national picture as the viable Republican candidate. Stuck behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during the early discussion and unable to break free from Jeb Bush’s shadow in Florida – not to mention with the money race – Rubio has had little luck breaking out the box of second-tier candidates.
Lately, it seems he has found his big opening.
Now that Walker has dropped out and Bush is struggling to clear the endorsement field the way Hillary Clinton has in the Democratic primary – not to mention unable to gain any traction in the polls – Rubio’s performances during the debates, especially the most recent one in mid-September, have been able for him to take the mantle as viable alternative to the anti-establishment candidates in Trump & Co.
And that hasn’t involved any breakout public performance. The closest Rubio came was with the wild applause he received when announcing House Speaker John Boehner was resigning at the end of October, and the news that followed when Trump was booed for attacking Rubio later that afternoon.
It appears Rubio, and not Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, gained the most from Walker’s exit. After the Wisconsin governor bowed out, with little support or money left, the junior senator from Florida was the one who swooped in and hired several of Walker’s staffers. There were also financial donors who have now shifted to Rubio, which is one of the few candidates left for the mainstream conservatives to back. As Texas Sen. Ted Cruz firmly plants himself in the anti-establishment wing and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Christie struggle to break away from the soon-to-be-also-rans, Rubio and Bush are the only two left worthy of support. There is no irony lost, also, that Bush is Rubio’s mentor.
While many people focus on the polls to gauge the strength and weakness of candidates in the race (especially from Trump supporters who constantly tout the latest polls showing the businessman with the lead) political experts and analysts tend to point to betting markets, a less volatile barometer of a candidate’s long-term position in the race. Lately, it has shown Bush still as the frontrunner, where he hasn’t dropped since announcing his intentions to run earlier this year, with 31 percent. But Rubio has more than doubled his standing up to 29 percent since the last debate.
That doesn’t mean the senator is climbing enough to overtake his mentor. He still hasn’t fully capitalized on his rise, especially among more established Republicans. His standing in the polls puts him at the same level as Bush, only with less money and fewer large-name endorsements. He does not have the kind of strength he needs from the conservative block, who are still firmly latched onto Trump and Carson, nor does he have the evangelical wing’s big support.
In fact, there is no group of the party, outside of Cuban supporters, where Rubio could easily build a coalition of support. But this could be his greatest strength. According to the New York Times, Rubio’s lack of a firm foundation among the various factions of the party could be his greatest strength. The son-of-a-bartender message, the writer says, is probably the best message among candidates because it is so broadly attractive “because it’s aimed at no one, except, perhaps, bartender households.”
But that also poses a problem for Rubio as he must overcome his wide appeal to gain a foothold in the first two selection contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa is an evangelical and conservative haven for Republican candidates, examples of why Trump and Carson are doing so well, while New Hampshire are free spirited independents who look for more moderate officials who are willing to compromise, which is why Fiorina is taking support away from Trump supporters and where Bush and Kasich are performing stronger. By having the wide approach, Rubio risks losing out on the kind of showing needed to stay funded going into South Carolina, Nevada and March’s Super Tuesday.
If Rubio does stick to this approach, and gains the kind of traction to make decent-enough finishes in one or both primaries, it could help him for the next contest. Mitt Romney finished in second in 2008 to the evangelical choice in Iowa – Mike Huckabee – and the moderate choice in New Hampshire – John McCain – because he kept to his cross-faction appeal. In the end, McCain won the nomination but put Romney on the perfect foothold of name ID and donor support going into the 2012 election.
Of course, the bigger problem in that scenario is the lack of opportunity for a one-term senator who has no national brand to stand upon while waiting for the 2020 election. In a party that is severely divided, it is possible that his efforts will fall flat before getting to New Hampshire as being broad-based means he is unable – or unwilling – to take a stand on an issue, meaning voters will see him as too weak to lead the nation and stand up against opponents.
But, for the first time since he announced in the spring, Rubio is positioned to see where his message can take him, latching onto the support a candidate would need to endure the mad dash to February’s caucus and primary.