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How Iowa upset expectations, and boosted Marco Rubio (+video)

Sen. Marco Rubio got 23 percent of the Iowa vote – just behind Trump's 24 percent Sen. Cruz's 28 percent – for a very strong third place finish.

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    Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio speaks to supporters during the Rubio watch party at the Downtown Marriott Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, February 1, 2016.
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It's only the first electoral event in a long 2016 race, but the Iowa caucuses already defied expectations and arguably reshaped the presidential race.

Donald Trump, who has dominated polls for the past six months and was starting to take on aura of invincibility among Republican candidates, was trumped by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

On the Democrats side, Hillary Clinton barely escaped another Iowa embarrassment in a razor-thin victory against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who called the race a "virtual tie."

But the real winner of the night was Marco Rubio.

The junior Senator from Florida was expected to take 15 to 17 percent of the vote and finish a distant third. Instead, he got 23 percent of the vote – just behind Mr. Trump's 24 percent and Sen. Cruz's 28 percent – for a very strong third place finish that more than one news outlet called "a victory."

"Rubio came within a couple hundred supporters of piercing the impenetrable bubble thought to be around Cruz and Trump — and on the two leaders' own political turf, no less," reported the Washington Post. "He over-performed expectations, and for that, Rubio perhaps almost as much as Cruz can call Monday a win."

Which is why Rubio's third-place, post-caucus speech Monday night sounded a lot like a victory speech.

"For months, for months they told us we had no chance," he said. "They told me that we have no chance because my hair wasn't gray enough and my boots were too high. They told me I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line. But tonight, tonight here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a very clear message."

At a time when the Republican establishment is scrambling to find a viable alternative to Trump and Cruz, Rubio, too, is using his strong Iowa performance to send a message to the Republican establishment: That he is the candidate who can claim the mainstream mantle and unite disparate groups within the Republican party.

In contrast to the rowdy, angry, Washington outsider campaigns Trump and Cruz have run thus far, Rubio is aiming to be the GOP candidate with the establishment credibility and broad appeal needed to win in a general election, a unifier who can bring together young, moderate voters, along with conservatives and evangelicals.

"[W]e are going to unify this party, and we are going to unify the conservative movement," Rubio, who benefited from higher-than-expected voter turnout and strong support from evangelical and undecided voters, said in his speech.

But, as the Post pointed out, one great night does not a nomination make.

In fact, Iowa is terrible at picking winners, as The Christian Science Monitor's Story Hinckley pointed out.

"What do Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney and John McCain all have in common?" she asked. "All of these politicians went on to win their party’s presidential nomination after losing the Iowa caucus."

Iowa doesn't pick winners – it chose Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the last two election cycles – but it does winnow the field by confirming or defying expectations. And perhaps no one exceeded expectations more than Rubio.

"I think Rubio will get what he needed out of Iowa, which is to come into New Hampshire as one of the stories," Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, told the Los Angeles Times.

Can Rubio ride his Iowa momentum into the Granite State and beyond?

Things are looking up for the "Barack Obama of the Republican party." New Hampshire, which hosts the first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 9 and is less conservative than Iowa, is his wheelhouse, and Rubio just received an endorsement from Tim Scott, the junior Senator from South Carolina, which hosts the "first-in-the-south" primary.

If Rubio can extend his winning narrative in the weeks to come, Iowa just might be his turning point.

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