Rubio's Rocky Road Ahead

Rubio's Rocky Road Ahead
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Marco Rubio's presidential campaign is on a high.

The Florida senator made a distant second-place finish in South Carolina, barely squeezing by Ted Cruz, seem like a victory on Saturday and garnered his largest and most enthusiastic crowds yet on Sunday. And on Monday, while he received a deluge of endorsements from Republican stalwarts, many of whom didn’t think he’d make it this far, his chief rival Cruz had to shake up his campaign by firing his communications director for sharing a false story about Rubio.

What’s more, Rubio is heading into another contest Tuesday in Nevada, a state where he spent some of his childhood and has a strong campaign operation and network built to deliver.

There’s just one yuge problem.

After decisive wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, billionaire businessman-turned-GOP-front-runner Donald Trump appears well on his way to the nomination. He leads in the delegate count and the polls heading into Tuesday’s caucuses and most of the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries.

Rubio doesn’t expect to win the Nevada caucuses, despite his investment and compelling personal history there.

“I think we’d be very happy with second place,” former Nevada Gov. Robert List told RCP after traveling around the state with the candidate on Tuesday. “Trump is still continuing to be a very powerful force despite his absence of a real effective ground game, and there is a real rebellious attitude about government … there is sort of a visceral attraction that’s there.”

List is one of several Nevada politicos supporting Rubio. Sen. Dean Heller endorsed his colleague after his first choice, Jeb Bush, dropped out. Silver State U.S. Reps. Cresent Hardy and Mark Amodei also joined in. Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison is chairing Rubio’s campaign there and, as a Mormon, has valuable connections to that key constituency there. On Monday, former Bush supporters, including several members of the Florida congressional delegation, flocked to Rubio.

But endorsements do not equal delegates. And it’s not yet clear if and where Rubio can win at the start of next month, either. Trump even leads in Rubio’s home state of Florida, which hosts a key winner-take-all primary on March 15. John Kasich is pledging to stay on through the Midwest primaries, denying Rubio’s campaign the chance to truly consolidate the establishment wing. Ben Carson isn’t dropping out either, and his continued presence in the race pulls mostly from Cruz, but also from Rubio.

Even party elders are seeing the rocky road ahead for anyone not named Trump. Onetime GOP nominee and former Sen. Bob Dole announced his support for Rubio on Monday after having backed Bush. But if Trump sweeps Super Tuesday, Dole told ABC news, "that's going to be hard to deny him the nomination. And if reality sets in and he's gonna start counting enough delegates, we've got to hope he'll be a good president."

Rubio seems to be eyeing opportunities to pick off delegates where he can while taking down Cruz and ultimately consolidating the party’s establishment and ideological conservatives behind him.

But that path may be one of denial. The more Trump wins, the more momentum he builds, not to mention the delegates he collects. Cruz is so far well positioned in the Southern states, though Trump is pulling the evangelical vote from him. Rubio supporters believe he can take down Trump in a one-on-one contest, but time is running short. March 1 is just seven days away.

Nevada could still be a wild card. Caucuses there are quirky, and polling is difficult to conduct and unreliable. The Rubio campaign feels confident in its operation there, and believes the large and enthusiastic crowds the candidate is garnering—from events in Las Vegas to Reno to Elko to Minden—will help convert the undecideds.

“The challenge in Nevada is forecasting turnout in these caucuses. If this were a primary vote tomorrow, then polls would mean something,” says List. Ultimately, when it comes to winning the nomination, “I think it’s a matter of assembling all these moving parts,” he said, arguing that Trump’s support comes with a ceiling and that Rubio is the only one who can ultimately unite the party and win the general election.

"Can Marco Rubio still win this race? Yes, he can. Can he afford to make another mistake? No. Does he have a less likely path than Donald Trump? Absolutely," writes veteran GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, arguing that the GOP nomination is effectively a two-man race between Rubio and Trump. "But Rubio has room to grow. We don’t know that Donald Trump does."

The collection of endorsements in Nevada and around the country may not move voters, but it does create a sense of a campaign with winning potential—and, more importantly, the donors and money that follow. These components are especially valuable as the race becomes more nationalized, with primaries and caucuses taking place in larger, less intimate states. 

But there comes a time where the  “second is as good as gold” narrative doesn’t work anymore, when real delegates are at stake and 1,237 of them are required to win the nomination. Neither Rubio nor Cruz won a single delegate in South Carolina, which awards them proportionally based on congressional district. Trump won all 50. The caucuses on Tuesday and the Super Tuesday states are also proportional, but with varied thresholds.

When asked, “Where will you win?” on ABC’s “This Week,” Rubio pointed to his home state.

“When we get to these winner-take-all states, we have to start winning, because they award all their delegates to one person,” he said. Florida, then, is a must win. “I think that's true for everyone in this race. And it's always been true. And we feel real good about Florida, especially now that the race has narrowed.”

The RealClearPolitics polling average in Florida shows Trump leading the pack by 21 points with 40 percent of the support. Cruz is five points ahead of Rubio. The last polls, however, were taken in January, and don’t account for several candidates, including Bush, dropping out.

The Cruz campaign argues Florida will be too late for Rubio.

“By March 15, 26 states or territories will have voted, and Rubio does not plan to win any of them,” wrote Cruz campaign chief strategist Jason Johnson in a memo. “Almost 50 percent of the delegates will have already been allocated; Rubio will win almost none, and then he’ll hope for resurrection in Florida. That’s an even less plausible path to victory than Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ‘wait for Florida’ strategy in 2008.”

Notably, though, the campaign memo came on a difficult day for the Cruz campaign. The Texas senator asked Communications Director Rick Tyler, a longtime GOP operative and key member of the campaign, to resign. Tyler had apologized for circulating an inaccurate video of Rubio questioning the Bible.

"This was a grave error of judgment,” Cruz told reporters in Nevada on Monday. “It turned out the news story he sent around was false, but I'll tell you, even if it was true, we are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate.”

The event served to boost the Rubio campaign, which has been aiming to undermine Cruz’s pitch as a trusted conservative. Over the past few weeks, Rubio has hit Cruz for what he calls “dirty campaign” tactics and accuses him of saying anything to get elected.

Rubio Campaign Manager Terry Sullivan said in a memo on Sunday that the past several days crystalized “the perception that [Cruz] is a ‘liar’ campaigning on a dishonest premise.”

“Every single day something comes out of the Cruz campaign that is deceptive and untrue, and in this case, it was after my faith,” Rubio said in Nevada.

Trump even came to Rubio’s aid, tweeting: "Wow, Ted Cruz falsely suggested Marco Rubio mocked the Bible and was just forced to fire his Communications Director. More dirty tricks!”

But Trump isn’t likely to continue to give Rubio a pass now that the Florida senator is emerging as a competitor. Over the weekend, Trump retweeted a doubt about Rubio’s eligibility to be president.

Asked on “This Week” whether he believed Rubio is ineligible to run for president, Trump let the idea fester. “I don't know. I really -- I've never looked at it,” he said. “As somebody said, he's not. And I retweeted it. I have 14 million people between Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and I retweet things and we start dialogue and it's very interesting.”

Indeed, Trump has proven an ability to gain attention and momentum by placing seeds of doubt about his rivals, even in the context of bogus and unsavory birther charges. Trump has focused his ire on Cruz so far, but it seems only a matter of time before he turns on Rubio. The three will come face to face in Houston for a debate on Thursday, along with Kasich and Carson.

Before heading to Texas on Wednesday, Rubio will host events in Las Vegas, Michigan and Minnesota on Tuesday.

At campaign stops over the past several days and in the ones to come, Rubio is pitching himself as the GOP uniter who can win. Yet even as the endorsements continue to roll in, the calendar and remaining candidates still stand in his way. While campaigning in Virginia on Monday, Kasich was asked about the Rubio campaign’s doubts about the Ohio governor’s path forward and the implication he should drop out of the race. His response? A burst of laughter.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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