King, a conservative congressman from northwest Iowa, is a leading critic of the Gang of Eight, and his battle against amnesty dominates the Iowa political conversation. “King sucks out the oxygen, so maybe it’s best that Rubio stays out of here right now,” says an Iowa GOP official. “You can’t beat King when he’s on his home turf.”
In the meantime, sources close to Rubio say he’ll continue to work behind the scenes, repairing relations and seeking allies. He huddled with Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa evangelical, earlier this year at a conservative conference in Maryland, and he has placed private, off-the-record calls to a handful of his Iowa critics.
Rubio’s team is also quietly building political contacts within the Hawkeye State. Todd Harris, Rubio’s political strategist, is advising U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst, a well-liked state senator from southwestern Iowa.
Not everyone in Iowa Republican circles, however, believes Rubio is finished — starting with the governor. “It’s far too early to make a call on that,” Branstad tells me. “Rubio made a good first impression when he was here, and Iowans are pretty open-minded and fair.”
“You can’t start writing the script for the caucuses this summer,” says David Kochel, a strategist for Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaign. “Rubio may be getting heat, but he’ll get a substantial amount of credit, too, for doing something to fix a broken system.”
Doug Gross, a former Iowa GOP gubernatorial nominee, agrees. “All of this criticism toward Rubio is coming from a few extremists who don’t represent the whole party,” he says. “Marco Rubio is a good man and principled conservative, and he’ll have strong support.”
“I actually just invited Paul Ryan to speak at my birthday party this year,” Branstad says. “I think he and Rubio are the key leaders on immigration. I like both of them, and the issue is still being played out.”
If Rubio is planning to invest heavily in an Iowa campaign in the coming years, Branstad had better be right.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.