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Eye On Candidates
December 7, 2015

Rubio Moving Toward the Top

While he hasn’t led in any major polls either nationally or in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has begun a steady rise that some expect will position him to be one of the final few candidates seeking the GOP nomination. The Hill reports this morning:

Rubio rises in New Hampshire

Marco Rubio is on the move in New Hampshire, edging up to second place in almost all recent polls of the crucial primary state.

Of the five significant surveys undertaken in New Hampshire since the middle of last month — from WBUR, Fox News, CBS News, The Boston Globe and Public Policy Polling (PPP) — four put Rubio in second place. The one exception, the PPP poll, had him in third, two points behind Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas).

The Florida senator is still a long way behind Donald Trump, but if he can solidify his hold on second place, he could be positioned to surge in the two months before the state’s Feb. 9 primary. 

“All year, in primary polling, what has been striking to me is the gap between the number of voters who said they would actually choose Rubio, which tended to be low, and Rubio’s net favorability, which always tended to be high,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

“I think the net favorability was an encouraging sign and we are starting to see that play out now.”

The article suggests that Rubio’s position in the state may not hold up because he has spent less time in the state campaigning than most of his rivals, but the campaign itself doesn’t seem to be concerned about this prospect, and he is making more appearances in the upcoming weeks as well as beginning to run television ads in the state.

The New York Times also reported over the weekend that Rubio appears to be getting ready to tangle with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom many expect to also be one of the final candidates competing for the nomination:

For months, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida ran an above-the-fray presidential race, high-mindedly dismissing his Republican rivals’ attacks and promising a campaign his family could be proud of long after 2016.

No more. In interviews, speeches and in stealthier ways, Mr. Rubio has abruptly changed course, zeroing in on Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in an urgent effort to halt his momentum with conservative voters in this state and beyond.

With help from an allied group that is airing television ads in Iowa, Mr. Rubio is seeking to raise doubts on the right about Mr. Cruz’s toughness on national security — a potentially fatal vulnerability, should Mr. Rubio succeed, amid heightened concerns about terrorism. More quietly, he is trying to muddy the perception that Mr. Cruz is a hard-liner on immigration, asserting that Mr. Cruz supports “legalizing people that are in this country illegally.”

The immigration and national security issues seem prominent in Rubio’s attempts to limit Cruz’s rise:

It is partly because of Mr. Rubio’s operating assumption about the importance of momentum that he has turned so hard against Mr. Cruz, trying to stir doubts among conservatives about a candidate whose calling card is ideological purity.

“There are Republicans, including Senator Cruz, that have voted to weaken those programs,” Mr. Rubio said Nov. 30 on Fox News, about Mr. Cruz’s vote to end the National Security Agency’s bulk data-collection program. Mr. Rubio was even harsher in an interview with the radio show host Hugh Hewitt, saying that Mr. Cruz “voted for a budget that basically gutted our foreign aid program, particularly our defense of the Israelis.” Mr. Rubio’s allies are driving the same message in Iowa: A group run by a supporter, Sean Noble, is running an ad here castigating Mr. Cruz for voting to “weaken America’s ability to identify and hunt down terrorists.”

Behind the scenes, Mr. Rubio’s aides are working just as aggressively. They are sending out a near-daily stream of emails to the news media highlighting negative coverage of Mr. Cruz. And they are working to sow doubts about Mr. Cruz’s convictions on immigration, an issue on which Mr. Rubio is vulnerable because of his leadership role in the failed effort to push through legislation that would have offered a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Aides to Mr. Rubio have quietly pushed reporters to question Mr. Cruz about how he defines amnesty — an effort to undermine Mr. Cruz with hard-liners by exposing his unwillingness to call for mass deportations.

The article also explains that the two candidates have different views of how the nomination can be won, and they have based their strategies on these different perspectives. For Cruz, the article explains, it’s about building a massive campaign infrastructure capable of winning state-level contests:

To create such a foundation, Mr. Cruz is crisscrossing all 99 of Iowa’s counties, and he is spending considerable time meeting voters in other early states. He has a sprawling infrastructure, with county chairs in each of the 171 counties in the first four states to vote, and coordinators for each of the 163 congressional districts in the first 24 states.

Mr. Cruz cited the recent precedent of a candidate who made incremental progress leading up to Iowa while aggressively organizing states later in the primary calendar.

“The campaign that we are consciously emulating is Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton,” he said.

Rubio, on the other hand, has a different approach:

While he is stepping up his appearances in the early nominating states, his aides believe that garnering positive news coverage, especially in the widely viewed debates, is most crucial to early success, which then begets subsequent wins.

 “Any venue we can create for Marco to communicate his message is a winner for us,” said Terry Sullivan, Mr. Rubio’s campaign manager. “More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa. Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t go to Iowa.”

Cruz and Rubio have eight weeks to go until voters in Iowa start heading to their caucus sites, and both appear to have plausible paths to the nomination – Cruz through an effort driven by grassroots conservatives, in many ways mimicking the Obama campaign of 2008, while Rubio more closely resembles the Bush and Romney national campaign strategies of 2000 and 2012. Only one of them can be right, and it’s possible neither of them is. We’ll start to find out in eight weeks.