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Eye On Candidates
September 23, 2015

Rubio Content to Build for the Long Haul

While businesswoman Carly Fiorina was thought by most to have done the best at the recent Republican debate hosted by CNN, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also drew wide praise for his performance. The Weekly Standard wrote about Rubio’s performance following the debate:

A Disciplined Rubio Stands Out at Debate

The debate covered several policy areas, but the moderators helped Rubio by asking him several questions about foreign policy and national security, the Florida senator’s area of relative expertise. Even with the assist, Rubio took full advantage of the opportunity, starting with a chance to distinguish himself from the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump….

He was hardly the only candidate to do so Wednesday, but Rubio ably demonstrated his ability to avoid a direct and potentially distracting confrontation with Trump himself. Instead, he presented a sober view that allowed him to demonstrate a command of the facts. It’s been a central part of the Rubio campaign’s strategy during the summer of Trump: keep provocations to a minimum, stay on message, and emphasize substance over theatrics….

As other rivals have tried to take down Trump in between the first two debates, with no success, Rubio has stuck to his message. There’s a risk of sounding too robotic and rehearsed, and his boyish looks and class-president persona don’t help in this regard.

But Rubio has come away from the first two televised debates unscathed, sounding more presidential than not, and demonstrating a deeper understanding of foreign policy than just about any of the other candidates. It’s part of a long game for the Rubio campaign, and with more performances like Wednesday’s, he may be playing for longer than his current poll numbers suggest.

National Review summed up Rubio’s performance with these words:

Rubio had one of the strongest performances of the evening. He looked knowledgeable, sounded clear, and neutralized attacks with ease.

Rubio’s debate performance comes at roughly the same time Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dropped out of the race, which according to a USA Today piece is likely to be a big boost to Rubio:

One of the early winners from Scott Walker’s decision to abandon the presidential race appears to be Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has inherited support from some of the Wisconsin governor’s activists in key states.

Among the most prominent “gets” is Walker's New Hampshire state chairman, Cliff Hurst, who will co-chair Rubio’s campaign in the Granite State, the senator’s campaign confirmed….

Rubio also was endorsed by several key Walker activists in Iowa, including GOP chairs in Lee, Dubuque and Muscatine counties. And Brittany Gaura, an Iowa State University student who co-chaired Iowa Students for Walker, is now backing Rubio.

The two events together, the debate and Walker’s exit, have combined to create what Politico suggests may be a moment that Rubio could use to maximum advantage but might not:

Shining debate performances. Good press. Better poll numbers. And the implosion of a rival candidate.

Marco Rubio is having a moment in the GOP presidential campaign. Again.

But if it’s like Rubio’s other moments — rising to second in May after his official campaign announcement, wall-to-wall press criticizing President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy in December — the confluence of his rise in the polls and the luck of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s early exit from the race probably won’t produce much more than a modest dose of momentum and a few favorable headlines.

Part of the reason for the skepticism over whether Rubio will be able to fully capitalize on the moment is the campaign’s overall strategy of waiting for other candidates to collapse:

“We need everybody not named Marco to fizzle. That is the plan. We need everybody to slowly fizzle out, and we think they will,” [campaign manager Terry] Sullivan said Monday, just as the news of Walker’s withdrawal broke…

Rubio’s campaign has an approach-avoidance complex with the turn of events. Publicly, it manages expectations by downplaying polls and talk of momentum. Privately, the campaign is hopeful that its strategy of laying low, performing well in debates, granting safe media interviews and staying out of food fights with Donald Trump is paying off.

One sign the strategy may be working is a poll released this morning out of Florida, also home to former governor Jeb Bush.

Marco Rubio has overtaken Jeb Bush among Florida Republicans, as he benefits from positive reviews of his performance in the most recent presidential debate.

A Florida Atlantic University poll to be released Wednesday shows Rubio, the state's junior senator, is in second place in the Republican primary field in Florida. His political mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, is in third place.

Donald Trump, the real estate investor, former reality TV show host and part-time Palm Beach resident, is in first place among Florida Republicans, as he is nationally.

Not everyone is convinced Rubio’s strategy of being the second choice of a large number of voters and waiting for first choices to drop out is going to ultimately work out, however. Back to Politico:

But Rubio’s watch-and-wait-for-‘fizzle’ plan puzzled Tony Fabrizio, Republican pollster for Sen. Rand Paul.

“This doesn’t sound like a strategy, it doesn’t sound like a way to get votes,” Fabrizio said. “This is worse than a bad strategy: Sitting around and waiting for someone to get struck by lightning or until someone dies? Hope is not a strategy.”

Whether Rubio’s strategy will ultimately pay off won’t be known for several months at least, but the simple fact that the campaign appears to be more or less where it hoped to be at this point and hasn’t felt the need to change strategies is probably a good sign for the Florida senator’s chances.