Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had a very good week, in part because so many of his competitors had a bad one. Jeb Bush's unfavorables are up, and he canceled ad buys. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took Donald Trump's bait and was forced to defend his citizenship. On Friday, he sounded tone-deaf and downright creepy in suggesting, "In my house, if my daughter Catherine, the 5-year-old, says something that she knows to be false, she gets a spanking. "Well, in America, the voters have a way of administering a spanking." Expectations for him in Iowa are so high, a loss there would be tragic.
According to the latest Fox News poll, a huge plurality (43 percent) of Republicans name "National security, such as ensuring a strong military and America's position in the world," as the single most important issue. The economy, at 27 percent, is a distant second. Immigration, which Cruz and Trump have relied so heavily upon, is picked by only 15 percent. That is a favorable issue mix for Rubio, whose foreign-policy knowledge is widely recognized.
Rubio got a spate of good horse-race polling news, which may be indicative of nothing but gets him good press. He has a good shot at third in Iowa and at least second in New Hampshire. If Trump and Cruz split Iowa and New Hampshire while Rubio comes in ahead of other mainstream Republicans, he goes a long way toward consolidating moderate and somewhat conservative support. He can then pivot to fight off the winner of the Trump-Cruz battle.
Rubio held his own in a verbal duel with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, cut a heartfelt ad on faith (aimed especially at Iowa evangelicals) and bashed the president on everything from a U.S. missile showing up in Cuba to the failure of our North Korea policy. His favorable ratings remain extraordinarily high. And he gets two more debates this month in which to shine, one just three days before the Iowa caucuses.
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Rubio now, however, enters the most critical part of his campaign. He's been called a lightweight, too young and inexperienced to take on Hillary Clinton. In response, he surely can talk about his years in local and state government as well as the work he's done in the Senate. He can remind Republicans of the election fought against reviled former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat. But the proof will be in the next two debates when opponents confront him. He must show he cannot be rolled or intimidated. Just as he flummoxed Bush when challenged on his attendance, he will need to counterpunch when the barbs come his way.
The issue is not one of ideology, no matter how much candidates such as Cruz would like their base to think this is a contest about conservative purity. If this was all about ideological purity, Trump would not be leading. It is as much if not more about gravitas and personal strength.
Unlike Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rubio has resisted the urge to dash to the right and therefore has not suffered the loss of authenticity that was Walker's death knell. Unlike Cruz, Rubio seems to understand that one cannot win the nomination by appealing only to the segment of GOP voters who identify as "very conservative" while trashing everyone else in the party.
When Trump or Christie or Cruz or Bush challenges Rubio as surely one or more will, he will need all the toughness, verbal dexterity and wit he can manage. The next three weeks could well determine if he is the party's savior from Trump.
Write Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Right Turn for The Washington Post, at Jrubinblogger@gmail.com