WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Marco Rubio ranks third in most GOP polls, but the Florida senator’s recent hot streak could dump kerosene on his smoldering electoral potential.
First off, Donald Trump’s national domination is real and continues growing.
But Sen. Ted Cruz, the field’s No. 2, has faltered the last two weeks facing birther questions, talk of “New York values” and getting one giant cold — nay, frozen — shoulder from his Senate colleagues.
If the campaign stars align, Rubio could seize this opening to create his own “comeback kid” tale in Iowa and upcoming states.
Three Iowa polls released Tuesday put Rubio at the top of the GOP’s not-Trump, not-Cruz heap. Third place isn’t a win, but it places Rubio well ahead of others like Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
As Trump has expertly illustrated this cycle, sometimes it’s more important to look like a winner than be the winner.
These encouraging polls come on the heels of Rubio pocketing the Des Moines Register’s highly regarded GOP endorsement. Iowa’s biggest newspaper called the 44-year-old freshman senator Republicans’ best hope of fulfilling its promise as the party of “opportunity and optimism.”
The Register’s editorial board gushed that “the whip-smart senator displayed an impressive grasp of public policy detail, reeling off four-point plans on foreign policy and other issues,” but conceded, “Rubio has plenty to prove and many questions to answer if he is to unite the party’s factions.”
Rubio can also claim explicit, and implicit, recent endorsements from several big name conservatives who hold sway over diverse sectors of the voter base.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa introduced Rubio at a campaign event, lending her folksy, Tea Party credibility to Florida senator who has alienated many Republicans by embracing the legalization of certain undocumented immigrants.
Ermst didn’t overtly endorse Rubio, but the big hug she gave him in front of cheering supporters said enough.
Formal endorsements rolled in this week from former Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.), Rubio’s one-time opponent for the nomination, and former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Both men are well known and well-respected within the party.
Realistically, Rubio won’t win Iowa. Heck, he probably won’t win New Hampshire.
But he has a plan.
Several reports detail Rubio’s “3-2-1 strategy,” which aims for a third-place finish in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. The 3-2-1 game plan would sacrifice early wins to build a larger story of momentum.
“The way Rubio wins South Carolina, the thinking goes, is if he clears the establishment lane of competitors — Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush — so that center-right Republicans can consolidate behind him to defeat Trump and Cruz,” reports National Review’s Tim Alberta.
If the Florida senator can surpass expectations, he could theoretically stir up wider talk of a surge and draw support from undecided voters — specifically, voters in search of a moderate.
Republican candidates have just a handful of early contests to arrest Trump’s muscular march toward the party’s nomination.
Iowa caucuses take place on February 1, followed by New Hampshire’s February 9 primary.
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