On the eve the New Hampshire primary, Ted Cruz did to Marco Rubio what Rubio did to Cruz a day before the Iowa caucuses.
The Texas senator, who surprised the nation last week by winning the Iowa caucuses, is advertising a potential Rubio boomlet in New Hampshire.
“There was a lot of speculation that Donald [Trump] and Marco might tie for first here,” Cruz told reporters during his final campaign swing in New Hampshire on Monday. “That's possible.”
If he's basing his speculation on early polling, that's a stretch. Two recent surveys by UMass/7News and CNN/WMUR show Trump with a double-digit lead ranging from 14 to 21 points, respectively. In both surveys, Rubio is statistically tied for second place with with Cruz as well as Ohio Governor John Kasich and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor.
If Cruz's assertion is fueled by a desire to help raise expectations on Rubio so that it would be impossible to meet them on Tuesday, that would be just the latest chapter in an intense rivalry for many of the same voters in the Republican primary.
Rubio arrived in the Granite State last week looking like the all-but-confirmed choice of establishment Republicans after garnering 23 percent of Iowa caucus-goers, a strong third-place finish behind Cruz and Trump.
The night before, Rubio spoke of a Cruz victory in Iowa as a foregone conclusion. “Obviously,” Rubio said Jan. 31 on CNN, “Ted is the front-runner.” The takeaway for close observers was clear: If Cruz won, it was expected since he spent more than enough resources to do so. And if he lost, he would be seriously under-performing.
The Texan is saving his resources for South Carolina and the swath of Southern states that vote on March 1, which better suit his style than New Hampshire, a state known for its relatively moderate GOP voters.
But Rubio needs a strong showing on Tuesday. While he performed poorly in this week's debate, there is so far scant evidence that he's hemorrhaging support. His campaign even circulated a CNN tracking poll showing a 1-point gain in a poll taken before and after the debate. At the same time, Rubio is avoiding promises of a victory or even second place.
Speaking to NBC News' Lester Holt on Monday, Rubio declined to predict a top three finish in New Hampshire. “This is such a big race that I don't think the numbers three or four, I think the point ... we need to show strength here,” he said. “We need to show the fact that we continue to grow our campaign.”
At a town hall Monday in Manchester, New Hampshire, Cruz stressed his message that he's an unwavering conservative, and took potshots at Rubio and other candidates for supporting “amnesty.” He cited his victory in Iowa—beating back the ethanol lobby which fought him over his support for phasing out subsidies—as an example of his ability to take on special interests and cited that as a reason people in Washington say he's unlikable.
Earlier this week, Laura Elazem of Londonderry, New Hampshire, was planning to vote for Rubio. Now she says she'll vote for Cruz.
“I wavered on that for a while, thinking [Rubio is] more electable. For a while I thought my vote should go to the one who has a better chance against Hillary Clinton,” she said after the town hall. “But no, I'm voting for Cruz. He checks all my boxes.”
Why the change? Seeing Cruz in person made a difference, Elazem said. So did the debate. “I thought he did well,” she said. “I thought Marco Rubio did poorly.”
The exchange with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that marked his performance at the debate haunted Rubio on Monday evening. Before he kicked off a rally in Nashua, protesters started chanting “no record, no experience!” in an echo of Christie's line of questioning. They were escorted out as Rubio fans yelled “Marco, Marco!”
At the rally, Rubio didn't sound chastened by a stumbling into repeating the same line three times in minutes as the nation watched. “I'm gonna keep saying it over and over again. Barack Obama has damaged America. We are going to make it right again,” he said.
Rubio also stressed his message of electability with a pitch he has become accustomed to making. “They don't want to run against me. Hillary Clinton doesn't want to run against me,” he said. “I can't wait to run against her.”