Republican debate: Why Rubio is bigger target than Trump

Entering Saturday's Republican debate and Tuesday's N.H. primary, Donald Trump leads the polls. But Sen. Marco Rubio has the momentum. 

REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at a town hall campaign rally in Derry, New Hampshire, February 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

One inevitable consequence of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s strong finish in the Iowa caucuses last week will likely be apparent Saturday night at the Republican debate: The target on the surging underdog's back just got a whole lot larger.

Entering the debate on ABC News and Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, Mr. Rubio appears to be the early beneficiary of the US presidential primary shakeout that kicks in when campaigns have to actually convert books, policy papers, and bombast into warm bodies inside voting booths.

As the winnowing nears, the intensity of the attacks rises.

To be sure, Rubio has been a steady part of the considerable fray among Republican presidential candidates. He has already jousted with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush over his Senate absenteeism. But now, those direct attacks are intensifying as more desperate candidates like Mr. Bush, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Ben Carson sprint for a strong finish in New Hampshire – or face pressure to fold their candidacies.

Polls show Donald Trump will likely win the New Hampshire primary. But the jostling for position is going on in the race for second or third – and the perceived momentum going into southern state primaries. 

“With a strong performance Saturday night, [Rubio will] take one step closer to  … becoming a true force in the 2016 contest,” Steve Peoples writes Saturday for the Associated Press. “But any major misstep could embolden one of his many mainstream rivals.”

Indeed, Saturday’s debate and Tuesday’s primary could upend the dynamics of the presidential race, as Republicans, chastened by two losing presidential cycles, take a harder look at “the son of a bartender and a maid,” as Rubio often refers to himself on the stump, and his formula for applying conservative values to looming middle-class problems.

But any fresh attacks could also refocus Americans on some of Rubio’s ultra-conservative views, at least those which seem to favor Wall Street over Main Street, and an anti-abortion stance that extends to pregnancies caused by rape.

For Rubio, nearly tying with Mr. Trump for second place in conservative Iowa gave him momentum going into New Hampshire. Most polls now show Rubio in second place with Cruz, Kasich, and Bush close behind. On Saturday night, expect the six other invited candidates turn their lances his way, aware that any move by Rubio to distance himself from the pack will diminish their own White House hopes.

“This race is up for grabs, and can go any which way," Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, told the Los Angeles Times. Saturday night represents "the last opportunity for some of these candidates to break out.”

For now, Trump remains the wild card candidate around whom the buzz swirls, but perhaps also for whom the bell tolls. This week, Paul Krishnamurty, a British political gambler, told Politico that “the market still favors Trump to win [New Hampshire], but the key detail is that Trump is falling fast – faster than anyone else.”

Cruz, who is also Cuban-American and won the Iowa caucus vote, may also now find himself on the defensive, given charges of playing dirty tricks after one of his campaign officials told voters that Mr. Carson had bowed out of the race. “To the extent the latest incidents fit a pattern, Cruz may find himself playing defense and his unfavorable ratings heading higher,” conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post this week.

But expect Rubio to have to put the shields up, as well. Bush, for one, has hammered him in recent TV ads. Both Bush and Christie have released ads featuring Rick Santorum, who endorsed Rubio this week, but during a TV interview was unable to remember anything significant that Rubio has done. Christie also called Rubio "the boy in the bubble" this week.

Moreover, even as Rubio presents a possible solution to the Republican Party’s recent woes in attracting Hispanic voters, his political views may be out of line with mainstream Hispanic view. Indeed, some call him "un joven viejo," meaning “a young fogey,” given his conservatism.

At the same time, there’s little doubt that a country in which 40 percent of Hispanics voted for George W. Bush in 2004 could get just as jazzed about electing its first Hispanic president as it did electing its first black president, eight years ago.

As such, Rubio’s strengths can’t be discounted.

David Axelrod, Obama’s former strategist, says that Rubio has emerged as the Democrats’ biggest worry, especially as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has made inroads on Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status. Rubio, Mr. Axelrod told the New Yorker's Evan Osnos, “seems to be able to build bridges between the two factions of the Republican Party” even while escaping “the real civil war going on between populist antigovernment Republicans and the establishment conservatives.”

Eventually, though, Axelrod noted, Rubio “is probably going to have to plant his feet in one place or another.”

Rubio has managed to turn his Iowa success into campaign donations and endorsements, and his polls have shot up in New Hampshire. In that way, “it’s possible for Rubio to be the overwhelming beneficiary” of the misfortunes of Messrs. Bush, Christie, Carson and Kasich, as Brian Beutler writes in the New Republic.

But Rubio has also attached himself to more far-right policy proposals that “are more extreme” than those of other recent Republican nominees, including Mitt Romney, Mr. Beutler writes.

Rubio “has never really had to square his appeal to electability with the fact that he’s further right than [Mr.] Romney on almost every issue … On Saturday night, maybe, he will.”

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