February 4, 2016
For months you could have entitled the campaign Waiting for Marco Rubio. The betting markets liked him. The pundits liked him. The polls didn’t. He debated well. He had high favorability ratings. He had the makings of momentum every few/several weeks. He never got much past low double-digits.
Ted Cruz pulled ahead of him nationally. Rubio was supposed to be more appealing. Even after Scott Walker vanished, Jeb Bush cratered, Chris Christie failed to take off and John Kasich drifted into Huntsmanland, nobody consolidated around him.
Marco did eventually receive a few endorsements from Senate colleagues, but still trails Jeb in congressional nods. He closed well in Iowa and got to claim pseudo-victory, but is in a cluster in the Granite State.
Two things prevented him from taking flight. Donald Trump changed the contours of the race. Along with Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and a more robust than expected Cruz, instead of running as something of an outsider, Rubio wound up with an establishment certification from the media and other candidates.
That seal of approval didn’t extend to his funding. He had the establishment brand, but not the PAC or campaign funds of Jeb (or the insurgent Cruz). The campaign was already planning on staying below the radar as long as possible, but the combination of a more narrow path and modest funding made it more of an imperative.
Last week in Iowa, he finally let the sails out and tried as hard as he could to get immediate votes for a whole week. It worked. If he’s who his fans and advisors think, this is the equivalent of letting a racehorse go all out after a bunch of secret training laps and a few public trots.
Now he gets to go full bore in New Hampshire. We keep hearing about how Christie and Bush are waiting for him. Attacking. Christie is calling him “the boy in the bubble.” Jeb ran a full page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader noting 8 of the last 10 Florida House Speakers have endorsed him.
Rubio is one of the two that didn’t. On the surface this seems like a threat. Jeb’s ad says those who know the two of them best have chosen Bush. Christie says Marco is afraid to do real New Hampshire town halls with lots of questions. Apparently, the fragile candidate isn’t willing to leave his script.
This is what Rubio has waited for. He’s prepped for this for months. Clips from the past couple days have heard him expressing sympathy for his governor elders, mentioning they must be frustrated after doing so poorly in Iowa. He’s at best broken even arguing amnesty with Cruz. This is the winning battle for him.
The Governor Squad is very unpopular in South Carolina and the March 1st states. Being attacked by Christie and Bush helps remind voters that Rubio was an outsider in 2010, the guy the establishment fought against. It reminds them he has a conservative record. There’s no getting around his Gang of 8/Amnesty episode. Those who aren’t willing to forgive (if not forget) are with Cruz.
But many times in politics, your enemies are at least as important as your friends. Being criticized by the right people as important as being praised. Rubio is already doing fairly well with self-described somewhat conservative voters. If moderates eventually need to choose between Marco, Ted and The Donald, he’ll get more than his fair share.
This is a step towards winning over a few more very conservative voters. Cruz has many of them locked up and will retain them as long as he remains viable, something Rubio should figure will not change soon. Trump has won some over with his bold talk, if not his actual history.
Rick Santorum just endorsed Marco. He’s nobody’s idea of a moderate establishment insider. If the consummate social conservative likes you, and Jeb and Christie are against you, well let’s just say Rubio is looking really good for South Carolina if he can close well in the Granite State.
Tim Scott and Trey Gowdy, both well respected among very conservative South Carolina voters, are already on board. This helps Rubio’s message that he can unify the party. Cruz can run against the Washington Cartel all he wants, but Santorum, Scott and Gowdy aren’t what anti-D.C. voters are picturing.
As long as he finishes ahead of them, even by a narrow margin, Rubio is better off having Christie and Bush attack him than fall in behind him. The second of those things is guaranteed anyway (Jeb won’t endorse Trump or Cruz). Better to wait a couple weeks and get the benefit of their scorn.
Best of all, Trump is fixated on Cruz. He’ll turn his attention to Marco in due time, but not until he does everything he can to get the best of the guy who bested him in Iowa.
You can tell by the look on his face. There’s never been a better time to be Marco Rubio. At least for now, he is firmly in his comfort zone.