Rubio’s Next Challenge Is Becoming Michael Dukakis: Read My Lips

How to win by losing.

RUBIO IOWA

"One, two, me."

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Maybe it’s time for Iowa to start handing out participation trophies.

Because it’s getting difficult to comprehend the results of the Iowa caucuses.

Best we can tell, finishing first is still good, but second is now terrible, and third might be best of all. As for fourth, well, ask Ben Carson, if he’s back from the dry cleaners.

Since Monday, Marco Rubio has joined an illustrious group of presidential wannabes who have tried to turn a third-place Iowa finish into lemonade. Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, Alan Keyes and Lamar Alexander landed the coveted No. 3 spot in Iowa, and just look at how far they went. (On the Democratic side, past third-place Iowa finishers include somebody named Fred Harris. Anyone?)

Rubio no doubt prefers the story of 1988. That year, the third-place finishers in Iowa -- Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George H.W. Bush -- both went on to win New Hampshire and ultimately their respective parties’ nominations.

Like Rubio today, Dukakis in 1988 did his best to paint third place as something worth celebrating.

“I knew we couldn’t beat Gephardt, but I wanted to finish second,” Dukakis, 82, said yesterday in a phone interview from his office at UCLA, where he’s a visiting professor.

When the returns showed he’d lost not only to Richard Gephardt but to Paul Simon as well, “you could cut the gloom in my hotel room with a knife,” Dukakis recalled. He told his staff, “There are 500 people down there waiting for me in the ballroom. What do you want me to say?”

He ultimately went with an Olympics reference. “Folks, tonight we won the bronze," he declared. "Next week, we go for the gold and we’re going to win it.”

Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts at the time, enjoyed a geographic advantage in New Hampshire that Rubio does not. So did Bush, for that matter: He was born in Massachusetts, and no amount of Texas oil could obscure the fact that he was New England through and through.

Rubio, a Cuban-American Floridian with a childhood detour through Las Vegas, has no such Yankee ties to play up, which only increases the importance of his “fantastic” and “phenomenal” and “great” and “important” (his words) third-of-12 showing in Iowa.

It’s tempting to assume America is as cutthroat as Alec Baldwin’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” character, who announces a contest for his sullen salesmen with the following motivation: “Third prize is you’re fired.”

In reality, ours is a remarkably inclusive society when it comes to losers, offering a small cut of glory not only to runners-up but to third-place finishers as well. There’s the bronze medal in sports, the “show” in horse racing, the second runner-up in beauty contests and too-numerous-to-count third prizes in competitions ranging from ugliest Christmas sweater to best vacation photo.

Rubio, it’s clear in retrospect, had only to acquit himself respectfully in Iowa for the encomiums and endorsements to flow his way. Lots of Republicans scared of Donald Trump and angry at Ted Cruz were waiting for any excuse to declare a Rubio surge. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t shout. Or that his cautious campaign makes him a blank slate. Or maybe it’s that face.

Like the third bowl of porridge facing Goldilocks, he’s not too new, not too old, a true believer to some, a get-things-done compromiser to others. He was a Tea Partyer when that worked for him, but not when it didn’t. His rapid rise in Florida politics -- six elections, all wins -- was characterized less by challenging his senior politicians than turning them into mentors.

“From the beginning, powerful, more experienced people saw his potential, his innate gifts, his energy and overwhelming drive, and they guided him forward,” Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in his biography of Rubio. “Often they were pushing him toward places well beyond their own reach.”

Those innate gifts have impressed and frustrated Rubio’s colleagues for years. Dan Gelber, who was the Democratic leader of the Florida House during Rubio’s two years as speaker, observed to colleagues, “When Marco Rubio speaks, young women swoon, old women faint, and toilets flush themselves.” Rubio’s innate gift for crafting bipartisan immigration reform in the U.S. Senate landed him on the cover of Time; the moment it became a liability to his political aspirations, he abandoned it.

Rubio can’t keep settling for third. “I think a strong second, at the least, is the next step of the ladder,” says Dante Scala, a political-science professor and expert primary watcher at the University of New Hampshire. (Rubio has risen to second in New Hampshire polls.) “And then a victory in South Carolina or Nevada. He can’t put up threes or twos forever.”

*****

Ruth Madoff, by all indications, wants to be left alone to live out the once-fabulous life she shared with her husband, Bernie. For Hollywood, she made an exception.

“She actually sought me out, I think when she heard I was playing her,” actress Blythe Danner, who plays Ruth in the ABC miniseries “Madoff,” tells Vogue magazine. The two women spent an hour together in Connecticut, where Ruth now lives. “She wanted me to see that she was a grandmother who was loved by her family, and very well supported by them since this agony of hers,” Danner says.

In a similar vein, Marcia Clark was done -- finished -- with all the public scrutiny associated with having been the prosecutor in the 1994 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Nothing was going to change that -- certainly not the fact that a cable network, FX, was creating a series called, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

“I have to say, when I first heard about this series, I was so wishing it would go away,” Clark tells New York Magazine.

But then Hollywood worked its magic. When Clark learned she would be portrayed by Sarah Paulson, “I thought, ‘Well, you know, that’s a pretty big honor,’” she said. “I’ve been a big fan of hers for many years, and I think she’s a brilliant actress.” The two women had dinner together.

When public people seek privacy, there are all sorts of unwanted intrusions. Evidently the siren call of celebrity stardom isn’t one of them.

(Read My Lips is a column dedicated to the proposition that men and women in a position of power, or the pursuit of it, will say or do things for which they might be sorry.)

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