U.S. Senator Marco Rubio returned to New Hampshire for a three-day swing on Monday with a lot of ground to make up before the first primary ballots of the Republican presidential race are cast. A promising young favorite of party elites, he faces concerns about the wisdom of his campaign strategy and lack of a clear path to the nomination.
The Floridian's strategy appears to involve unifying the GOP's establishment wing behind him and siphoning enough votes from his Senate colleague, Ted Cruz, to prevent the Texan from consolidating the party's conservative wing. That would enable Rubio, rather than Cruz, to emerge as the party's alternative to Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who has been leading national polls since the summer.
According to people in Rubio's orbit, the campaign views the well-funded Cruz as its primary long-term threat and wants to halt his recent momentum. Rubio's advisers think he has an equally good shot of winning over conservatives, given the near equal popularity the two senators enjoy among Republican voters (favorable-to-unfavorable ratings of 58-18 for Cruz; 55-18 for Rubio, according to a recent poll).
But less than six weeks before the first votes of the race will be cast, Rubio has a light footprint in Iowa and New Hampshire compared to some of his chief competitors in each state. Eschewing the kind of labor-intensive retail campaigning that voters in those early-voting states traditionally demand, Rubio is waging a gamble by running a more national- and media-driven campaign. He has also placed a premium on landing wealthy donors, with notable successes.
As a result, in New Hampshire, which may be Rubio's best bet for an early state victory, some Republican voters view him as a man of mystery. Even as he faces fire for missing Senate votes, Rubio has spent less time in the state and has fewer campaign staff and volunteers than some of his rivals.
"It's a problem for him if he's not gonna show up here," said Bill Dunham, 68, of Brentwood, N.H., an undecided voter at a rally for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Saturday in Exeter. "Nobody's ever called me on the phone or emailed me saying Marco Rubio is going to be in Exeter—or somewhere around here. I don't even know where he is at the moment."
Renee Plummer, a prominent and widely-courted Republican activist in New Hampshire, said Rubio is well-liked and has something "special" but that his sparse visits to the Granite State aren't helping him.
"You have to be here. People want to see you," said Plummer. She has endorsed Christie, who's surging in the state. Asked to describe Rubio's reputation among New Hampshire Republicans, Plummer said, "That he missed a lot of votes. That maybe there's a few things there that haven't come out about him."
If Rubio falters early, some strategists wonder if he can recover.
"The overall contest is heavily influenced by the momentum candidates get from wins or perceived wins. It becomes difficult to consolidate support if you don't have one of the early states in your trophy case," said Kevin Madden, a former top adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "Is there a path without a win in one of those states? Possibly, but it's a path with longer odds."
Never in the modern nominating contest has a Republican won the nomination after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani's once front-running 2008 campaign faded after he failed in the early states. Romney's 2012 victory in New Hampshire helped him consolidate support and gradually knock off rivals.
"There is no substitute for a good ground game," said Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery.
A focus on Ted Cruz
Over the past month, Rubio's campaign has zeroed in on Cruz, working relentlessly to undermine the Republican presidential field's other Cuban American freshman senator. In the span of 48 hours late last week, Rubio's campaign sent reporters no fewer than 11 e-mails seeking to undercut Cruz’s image as a consistent conservative, compared to zero e-mails about all other candidates.
That has raised some eyebrows, given that Rubio is hardly a lock for the establishment wing, facing competition from Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich, all of whom are putting it all on the line in New Hampshire and all of whom have been barnstorming the state since the weekend.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant declined to comment on the campaign's strategy.
John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said Rubio is betting on two things: first, that no candidate emerges from Iowa or New Hampshire with significant momentum; and second, that Trump and Cruz will fail to unify the party, in which case one or both could falter in later contests, particularly the delegate-rich blue states. "But I still think that failing to win either [Iowa or New Hampshire] poses challenges—especially for a candidate like Rubio who is also unlikely to win [South Carolina]," Sides said.
Rubio's team has highlighted 2013 remarks in which Cruz appeared to leave open the possibility of supporting legal status for undocumented immigrants. "When you run by telling everybody you're the only purist in the field, you're the only one that's always consistent conservative, well, I think then your record is going to have a light shone on it," Rubio said on CBS' Face The Nation on Sunday.
Immigration is a critical issue that divides Rubio, who co-authored and voted for a bipartisan immigration bill, and Cruz, who voted against it and tried to scuttled it. Their positions remain different today: Rubio backs an expansion of legal immigration and, eventually, a path to citizenship, while Cruz has ruled out legalization and has turned against legal immigration programs. In a Republican nomination fight dominated by conservative voters hostile to what they see as "amnesty" for people living in the U.S. illegally, that would seem to make immigration a bigger vulnerability for Rubio, making the Floridian's decision to lean in to the fight curious. But one Republican strategist sees historical precedent for the move.
"Rubio is playing offense against Cruz by attempting to turn his strength on the immigration issue into a weakness on the campaign tail. This is very similar to the Swift Boat attacks by President [George W.] Bush against John Kerry in the 2004 election," said Ron Bonjean, referring to the successful effort to turn Kerry's Vietnam War service into a political liability.
New Hampshire: Do or die?
A nagging question for Rubio during his New Hampshire visit is whether he is overestimating his ability to stay competitive in the long-run without a victory in an early state. Should he go all-in there over the coming weeks? Without New Hampshire, his long-term path could narrow dramatically.
For the time being, Rubio's biggest enemy may be a perception that he's being complacent or taking voters for granted.
"I'm not sure Marco Rubio understands New Hampshire," said Rick Bender, 67, a retired Air Force colonel lieutenant from Kingston, N.H. "You gotta come to New Hampshire and meet the people. It's retail politics."
Added Plummer, the Portsmouth-based activist: "I think [Rubio is] a great person. I think he just needs some time. Maybe if he became somebody's vice president. I think maybe that's what he's looking to do."