Establishment Lane

Rubio Needs a Win, Though No Promises on Nevada

His central pitch is that he's the only Republican who can win the White House in November, which makes winning in Nevada all the more important.

Is Marco Rubio Now the GOP Frontrunner?

Marco Rubio, the only member of a three-way Republican primary battle that has yet to win a contest, has a lot riding on the Republican caucuses Tuesday in Nevada.

The junior U.S. senator from Florida is locked in a tight battle with Texas Senator Ted Cruz to become the Republican establishment's bulwark against front-runner Donald Trump. But Rubio's central pitch is that he's the only Republican who can win the White House in November, which makes winning in Nevada all the more important. 

"Rubio needs to win somewhere," Michael Bowers, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.  "He cannot continue to declare victory when he's coming in second or third. Nevada could be a good state for him to start doing that." 

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Having lived in Nevada as a boy after his father lost his job in Miami, the state offers him some measure of familiarity.   

"Obviously, I have ties to Las Vegas that run deep given my time growing up here," he told reporters at a charter flight terminal in Las Vegas. "I haven't lived here in 25 years and the city has changed a lot. I have a lot of friends here and a lot of family, but I'm not sure that's going to be enough to be a determinative factor in the caucus."

Early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are bastions of retail politicking where voters demand to see candidates up close and personal. Now, Rubio and the other candidates are transitioning to running national campaigns as 13 states and territories hold their contests on Super Tuesday. Before then, however, comes Nevada.  

"Doing well in Nevada will allow his campaign to benefit from positive media coverage, at least in the short term," said Kevin Banda, a University of Nevada, Reno, professor who has studied the cues taken by voters in formulating their opinions. "That said, will the results of the Nevada caucus tell us who will win the Republican nomination? No."

Hour after his strong, second-place showing in South Carolina, Rubio took off from the Palmetto State for rallies in Nashville, Little Rock and Las Vegas. By Monday, he was urging reporters to focus on his long-term prospects as he boarded his campaign jet for a rally in Elko, Nevada.

"I think this is going to be like every other candidate that's coming in: we're going to have to compete hard," Rubio said when asked if his background makes the state a crucial win for him. "I feel very confident about our campaign moving forward in a very unusual year. We're going to move forward and we look forward to continue to add delegates to our count and as we get into the winner-take-all states I think we'll be in a very strong position."

People like Doug Pickett, who drove three hours from his home in neighboring Idaho to hear Rubio speak in Elko, may be exactly the kind of supporter Rubio is playing to in Nevada. 

Pickett said Rubio seemed perfectly situated between Trump and Cruz, and argued that while Nevada's delegate count may me small, it's symbolic value would have an impact on Super Tuesday.

"He needs a good show tomorrow," Pickett said of a strong finish. "It would help, absolutely. It'll definitely have an impact in Idaho and elsewhere."

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