New Hampshire Target: Marco Rubio

New Hampshire Target: Marco Rubio

Rubio is making a play that makes him much more of a target. It’s a risk, but he's taking it.
Ben Domenech

Marco Rubio is one of the most puzzling politicians out there today. He is handsome, charming, and eloquent – yet he has to this point struggled to take off despite having plenty of opportunities. (What pundit hasn’t said at some point in the past three months “this news is really going to help Marco Rubio”?) He is most passionate when talking about foreign policy and national security – but he lost security voters to Ted Cruz in Iowa, and the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy and rising security concerns have not particularly boosted him in polls.

He has consistently performed well in debates, but only the most recent one seemed to benefit him. He has a beautiful family and seems to be a loving father and husband, yet he underperforms with female voters in polls and did so again in Iowa.  He is positioned perfectly at the center of all the varied factions of the party.  He looks on the surface like everything the Republican Party should want to be right now: temperamentally hawkish, softly evangelical, hip to the modern fads, ethnically diverse, optimistic about the future… on paper, it all looks good.

Yet the consolidation that would have been logical months ago has been delayed by a combination of donor and voter reluctance to get on the Rubio bandwagon. Perhaps it was the negative ads; perhaps it was the Gang of Eight; perhaps it was something else. But now Rubio has the opportunity to change that.

Rubio and his team have attempted to seize the meta-narrative coming out of Iowa to depict him as winning, just as much as Cruz. Mark Steyn has the proper degree of tongue in cheek response to that, and to Cruz’s victory speech:

Rubio did the usual caucus-night thing. He came third so he hailed himself as the most stunning victor since Wellington at Waterloo and then segued into the stump-speech bollocks about being the son of a bartender and promising a new American century. Ted Cruz followed with a victory speech that lasted most of the new American century. It was the kind of ruthless Canadian triumphalism older Americans haven’t seen since the War of 1812, which, like Cruz’s speech, went on into the following year. If he wins again next Tuesday, let’s hope he cuts to the chase and burns down the White House.

Rubio: Everyone’s Second Choice

Rubio has a good deal of built-up second-choice credit with conservatives, even though his campaign got the second most money from lobbyists after Hillary Clinton last quarter. The inside money has moved from Jeb Bush to Rubio in a steady flow:

“He raised nearly as much in the fourth quarter from the 20 largest lobbying firms as he did in the first three quarters of the year, while Mr. Bush’s fundraising from those firms dropped off at the end of 2015.”

Rubio’s biggest supporters are from inside the Beltway, and the vast majority of his donors give over 200 dollars. This is consistent with the kind of supporters we saw for him in Iowa: college graduates, people who care about the economy moreso than immigration or debt, somewhat conservatives, pragmatists looking for someone to win a general election. In more ways than one, that looks like Mitt Romney’s base of support – which is a good thing if you want to become the nominee.

Now, Rubio is about to be tested in a very significant way.

Now, Rubio is about to be tested in a very significant way. Because New Hampshire is a state where Ted Cruz would just be happy to be in the top three – Cruz’s focus has shifted already to the more friendly ground of South Carolina – and because it is also potentially the last stand of not one but three of the more establishment campaigns, Rubio is the enemy for the next week there. Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush will be aiming at taking Rubio down a few notches and edging their way into second or third, knowing that if they beat him, they can make the case to their donors and to the public that this is at least a four man race.

What does that look like?

This time around, on top of their standard attacks, Bush, Christie and Kasich are adding a localized approach. Their message to New Hampshire voters: Rubio doesn’t love you like we do, and he doesn’t deserve your love back. Separately, the three camps are plotting a barrage of criticism in the days to come, largely to accuse Rubio of failing to put in the one-to-one courtship with New Hampshire voters and then attempting to waltz in late and walk away with their hearts.

‘I think the voters will expect a certain level of exposure here that they haven’t gotten in terms of asking [Rubio] tough questions,’ a top Christie adviser said. ‘These [Rubio] town halls are very quick; they’re in and out. He doesn’t make a speech. He doesn’t really take very many questions. He doesn’t do gaggles with reporters. And so that’s what the voters here expect,’ the adviser said, confirming that Christie would contrast that approach with his own emphasis on New Hampshire. ‘How will he do under that spotlight?’

What The Others Are Saying About Him In New Hampshire

Christie is blasting away at Rubio in New Hampshire already, calling him “the boy in the bubble”.  Rubio fired back. “Chris has had a tough couple of days,” Rubio said in an interview with ABC News at Puritan Backroom restaurant. “He’s not doing very well, and he did very poorly in Iowa. And sometimes when people run into adversity they don’t react well and they say things they maybe will later regret.”

Kasich’s campaign accused him of having no record.  And Bush, who’s been spending millions against Rubio, took out a full page ad in the Union Leader which suggested Rubio was likable enough, but not ready for the job.   The three have certainly invested a lot more time in the state than Rubio – the NECN candidate tracker shows Kasich at 180 events in the state, Christie at 176, and Bush at 106 to Rubio’s 76 – just one more than Ted Cruz.

Rubio has the capability to tap into a coalition that would lead to the nomination along a much longer timeline.

The risk here for Rubio is that he’s already laid out his strategy: 3-2-1. Finish 3rd in Iowa, 2nd in New Hampshire, and 1st in South Carolina in order to win the nomination. If Rubio does achieve that, he’ll be the new frontrunner. But the risk entailed in being so explicit about what you think you need to achieve to win is how much importance it puts on the early states.

Rubio has the capability to tap into a coalition that would lead to the nomination along a much longer timeline – just as Romney did despite losing Iowa and South Carolina. Instead, he’s making a play that makes him much more of a target, in an effort to crowd out all the other “establishment” candidates early on and consolidate support in Washington and among the donor community.

It’s a risk, but Rubio’s taking it. The next week will tell us a lot about how he deals with the slings and arrows from people seeking the same voters he is. The week after will tell us a lot about how he knife fights with Ted Cruz in South Carolina. How Rubio stands up to the pressure in both contexts could prove decisive.

Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom.

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