Of the three plausible alternatives to Donald Trump, Marco Rubio is the only candidate who is trailing considerably in his home state, according to early polling. Ted Cruz leads comfortably in Texas, while John Kasich is within striking distance in Ohio.
A Florida poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac found Trump leading Rubio by a margin of 44 to 28 percent with likely Republican voters. Trump led with nearly every sub-group: with all ages, both sexes, and all ideologies, including Tea Party voters and evangelicals, and with voters without a college degree. Rubio led among voters with a college degree.
Meanwhile, a poll by Monmouth released Thursday found Cruz ahead of Trump by 15 points in Texas, which votes on March 1. And a poll by Quinnipiac released Tuesday found Kasich trailing Trump by 5 points, just outside the margin of error, in Ohio, which votes March 15.
The surveys highlight the existential crisis facing the Republican establishment five days before Super Tuesday. Trump, who has swept three consecutive states, is poised to score more victories and extend his delegate lead, and these results throw more cold water onto hopes of unifying the GOP vote behind an alternative.
Rubio has enjoyed a wave of elite endorsements after second-place finishes in South Carolina and Nevada, particularly with Jeb Bush dropping out after the Palmetto State primary. But he has failed to win a single state so far, or even come close. The Florida poll complicates his strategy after Rubio said Wednesday on CBS that "we'll win in Florida." A loss there could spell doom for his campaign.
Rubio campaign strategist, Todd Harris, downplayed the new Quinnipiac poll.
The Cruz campaign trumpeted the Florida poll in an e-mail to reporters: "Tough to make the case you're the most electable nationwide when you're getting blown out in the place where people know you best," it said.
Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf seized on the Florida survey to call on Rubio to drop out, using it to buttress the Ohioan's argument that he—not Rubio—is best positioned to win the mainstream Republican vote and defeat Trump.
A second Florida poll released Thursday by the Associated Industries of Florida also found Trump leading Rubio, but by a narrower margin of 34 to 27 percent. Trump has led consistently in Florida primary surveys since August, often by double-digits.
The Republican debate Thursday night in Houston may be Rubio's last chance to upend the dynamic of the race. After steering clear of attacks on Trump, he signaled a shift at a rally Wednesday by launching gentle jabs at the front-runner by name. Trump "thinks parts of Obamacare are pretty good," Rubio said, according to NBC News, adding: "Donald Trump has said he's not going to take sides on Israel versus the Palestinians because he wants to be an honest broker."
The next morning, the Rubio campaign circulated a New York Times article headlined "Donald Trump Taps Foreign Work Force for His Florida Club."
Rubio's campaign has been coy about his strategy, which has quietly gone though several incarnations. His campaign initially hoped for a come-from-behind victory in Iowa at the last minute. Then it leaked the so-called "3-2-1" strategy—third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina. After Rubio's dismal fifth place in New Hampshire, the strategy hinged on strong finishes to thin the field and become the last Republican standing against Trump.
After Rubio finished second in South Carolina and Bush dropped out, the endorsements started pouring in. Cruz was on defense, under fire from a Rubio-Trump tag-team attack on his integrity. Things were looking up. Then Rubio lost to Trump by 20 points in Nevada, and edged out Cruz for second. The broad-based party support enjoyed by Trump was the writing on the wall: The billionaire would need to be weakened, not merely brought to a one-on-one, in order to lose.
Rubio expressed confidence on Wednesday night that a narrower field would help him, and said not to expect a significant change in his campaign approach, even as some conservative commentators are urging him to get more aggressive.
"We're not going to change our message," Rubio said at a town hall hosted by Fox News. "Our tactics are the following. Every state is different, obviously. We want to go in with the resources we have and try to move numbers and do that. So our tactics are not going to dramatically change. I think the biggest change in this campaign is going to be when the people not named Donald Trump—the choices begin to narrow and we start to give the Republican voters a clearer choice of who they want to get behind."