Is Rubio’s third-place finish in Iowa the GOP establishment’s breakout moment?

AFP-JIJI, AP, Bloomberg, Staff Report

If the Republican establishment can indeed strike back, as several 2016 presidential campaigns are hoping, this might be Marco Rubio’s moment.

Florida’s freshman senator made his mark just before the Iowa caucuses, the crucial first contest in the party nomination races.

Rubio, who came in third, achieved a credible showing by nearly besting the front-runner for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump. Rubio’s stronger-than-expected finish could help cement his status as the favorite of mainstream Republican voters who worry that Trump and the winner of Monday’s Iowa caucus, Sen. Ted Cruz, are too caustic to win the November general election.

At rallies and coffee shops across the state, he presented himself as the rational, policy-focused conservative in the campaign, countering the heated rhetoric of Trump and the Tea Party ideology of core conservative Ted Cruz.

He attracted interest from young voters who share his optimism about America and appreciate his family story of a dynamic son of Cuban immigrants who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.

And he courted Iowa’s all-important evangelical voters, invoking God and religion now perhaps more than ever.

“He draws from all corners of the party,” Rubio’s communications director Alex Conant said at a Saturday rally in the city of Ames.

While he still trails billionaire Trump and fellow U.S. Sen. Cruz in polls, his stronger-than-expected bronze medal finish in Iowa is likely to boost his claim as the pre-eminent mainstream Republican in the race going into the votes in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“Traditionally there are three tickets out of Iowa, and we’d be thrilled with a strong third place,” Conant said last week.

Added Rubio strategist Todd Harris: “We’re uniquely positioned to unite the party. It may not come into focus until much later in the process.”

In Iowa, Rubio finished well ahead of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two presidents, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

And as far as war chests go, the Republican candidates seeking to challenge Trump and Cruz were in varying degrees of financial distress at the end of 2015, fundraising reports filed Sunday night showed, but Rubio was in the best position to move forward.

Of Bush, Kasich Christie and Rubio, the Florida senator led the money chase in the final three months of the year, collecting $14.2 million and ending with $10.4 million in the bank. What is more, he was on the upswing, having more than doubled his fundraising pace from earlier in the year. In total, he collected $39.5 million in 2015.

In New Hampshire, however, he trails Kasich and Bush, along with Trump and Cruz.

Rubio is making a bet against history. No Republican in the modern presidential primary has gone on to win the nomination after failing to finish first in either Iowa or New Hampshire. He is hoping that having exceeded expectations in Iowa, he will now get a boost in New Hampshire, where Trump dominates and where he is competing with several others for second place.

While Cruz recently had been launching a comprehensive assault against Trump, he now trains his fire on Rubio, a sign the Texan is concerned about Rubio’s Iowa rise.

On the campaign trail, Cruz now regularly invokes Rubio’s name, often to slam his positions on immigration.

Rubio, however, has focused on Democrats. His stump speech is heavy with criticism of President Barack Obama and his would-be Democratic successors Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t mention other Republican candidates.

“The one person Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to face is me,” Rubio said in Burlington, Iowa. “This is why she consistently attacks me more than anybody else in this race.”

At a campaign event in Muscatine, Iowa, on Friday, Rubio said that if a Democrat wins, “we doom more children to a diminished country.

“If we win,” he continued, “America has a chance to become better than it ever has been.”

Rubio had also focused on another key issue in Iowa: religion.

Like his rivals, Rubio has launched a full court press to woo evangelicals, the religious conservatives who are a key group in the quest for the GOP nomination.

“Our rights don’t come from our government, our rights don’t come from our laws,” he said in Ames. “Our rights come from our creator.”

The 44-year-old Rubio’s secret weapon might well be young voters, who are expressing dissatisfaction with Trump’s coarse, confrontational rhetoric and are turning to Rubio as an optimistic 21st century leader.

“Rubio and I are on the same wavelength on a lot of important issues,” said Nathan Haila, 36, a product manager for a manufacturing company in Iowa.

He said he appreciates some aspects of Trump’s message, “but at the end of the day, policy matters.”

Trump’s relentless combativeness, insults and simplifications of complex policy issues can be counterproductive, Haila said.

“It’s hard to hear sometimes through the rhetoric what somebody’s actually going to do.”

Alex Kovac, 20, a sophomore in mechanical engineering at Iowa State University, said he is a “big fan” of Rubio, noting that “he’s not wild like Trump” and is more clear-eyed on his positions.

Trump is “a little bit of a shot in the dark,” Kovac said.

Rubio portrays himself as someone who lived “paycheck to paycheck,” understands the concerns of working class Americans and commiserates with students over college debt.

“I’m not done with school yet, but I can see the debt piling up,” Kovac. “He seems to understand that.”

Ultimately, the nomination could come down to the top two foes canceling each other out.

“Trump and Cruz have a good chance of beating each other up and Marco has a good chance of being the nominee because of it,” said Gary Pitts, 67, a property manager and investor who lives in Cumming, Iowa. “I like both of them a lot, but Cruz comes off a little angry. I don’t think that’s going to play well in the general election.”