Ottumwa, Iowa — After facing questions for months over his passive campaign approach and his unwillingness to identify one of the early nominating states as a launching pad, Marco Rubio and his senior aides have begun sharing a specific blueprint for how he can secure the Republican presidential nomination.
According to multiple Rubio allies recently briefed on campaign strategy, the senator’s team has settled on an unconventional path to winning the GOP primary contest. The strategy, dubbed “3-2-1” by some who have been briefed on it, forecasts a sequence in which Rubio takes third place in Iowa on February 1, finishes second in New Hampshire on February 9, and wins South Carolina on February 20. From there, Rubio would be well-positioned in the long haul to win a plurality of voters, and ultimately a majority of delegates, in a three-way contest against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
More boldly, it assumes that a Rubio victory will be possible in South Carolina even if he doesn’t win either of the first two states. This would not be unprecedented; Newt Gingrich in 2012 won South Carolina after finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. But many GOP officials and rival campaign representatives believe that Cruz and Trump victories in the first two contests would generate a head-to-head battle for the nomination, depriving their also-ran opponents of political oxygen heading into South Carolina.
Rubio’s team is preparing for a different scenario. The senator’s operation — both campaign and super PAC — is anchored by South Carolina veterans who long ago identified their state as his firewall because of their institutional and organizational advantages, and because they viewed it as the best fit for someone without a geographic or ideological foothold in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Rubio’s supporters remain confident in their ability, even without a victory in the first two states, to deliver South Carolina. But to do so they must winnow the field.
This explains why Rubio, in a campaign stop Monday here in this small, working-class town on the Des Moines River, continued his assault on Christie. Choosing to not mention him by name, Rubio sustained a series of attacks on the New Jersey governor — after pummeling him during last week’s debate in Charleston — highlighting how “some candidates” would not offer a meaningful change from the policies of President Obama.
“We can’t just elect any Republican,” Rubio told the crowd here. “Our nominee can’t be someone that agrees with Barack Obama on key issues like Common Core, or judges like [Supreme Court justice Sonia] Sotomayor, or gun control, or any of these other things.” It was the second time during this stop that Rubio had emphasized those three subjects after cudgeling Christie with them a few nights earlier, much to the governor’s irritation.
In recent weeks, Rubio’s team has come to view Christie as its greatest threat, convinced that while Christie lacks the long-term resources to win the nomination, he has the ability to finish ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire – which would give neither of them a legitimate claim as the establishment alternative to Trump and Cruz heading into South Carolina.
Even if Rubio breaks away from the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, there is hardly a guarantee of success in South Carolina.
For one thing, Bush allies say their candidate has the resources, organization, and support there to stay in the race regardless of what occurs in the two earlier contests. (And they say he’ll be further emboldened to stay through South Carolina after Lindsey Graham’s endorsement.) Moreover, even if Rubio squeezes out his establishment rivals and secures a three-way showdown, Republicans believe there is a strong likelihood that Cruz and Trump will be coming off earlier victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, and riding momentum into South Carolina. Rubio at that point would find himself combating not just a pair of proven winning candidates, but a post–New Hampshire narrative of a two-man race.
The Cruz campaign, meanwhile, is intent on going toe-to-toe with Trump and wary of the looming threat posed by Rubio. They have consistently attempted to undermine any scenario — such as the one Rubio’s team is now describing — in which the Florida senator remains viable without a victory in one of the first two states. Cruz aides flooded the spin room in Charleston last week declaring that the GOP primary campaign had become a “two-man race.” And, following an earlier debate in Las Vegas, Cruz predicted that Rubio wouldn’t be a finalist for the nomination if he didn’t win New Hampshire.
“Marco is perceived by many to be the most formidable candidate in the moderate lane. But he has serious competition in the moderate lane,” Cruz told National Review in an interview at the time. “Look, the winner of the moderate lane has to win New Hampshire. And right now there are a number of moderates who are competing vigorously for New Hampshire, and at this point it is not clear to me who will win.”
Cruz entered the White House race with a conventional view of what the Republican contest would boil down to — a conservative who wins Iowa versus a moderate who wins New Hampshire — and he maintains it to this day. Trump’s emergence and sustained success did not fundamentally alter Cruz’s perspective on the role of the early states in winnowing the field, even after it became clear that Trump was on track to win New Hampshire.Rubio’s team has a very different outlook. They see Trump’s candidacy — and his expected victory in New Hampshire — as transforming the structure of the primary season. Coupled with a Cruz victory in Iowa, it would send a significant chunk of the GOP electorate into full-blown panic and create an unprecedented demand for a single center-right candidate to oppose them.
If that happens, Rubio’s team believes he is ideally positioned to fill that vacuum, to challenge Cruz and Trump as the establishment favorite, to win South Carolina and reset the GOP race. But first he must prove in Iowa and New Hampshire that he — not Christie, Kasich, or Bush — actually is the establishment favorite, and in a way that leaves no doubt in their minds about it.
– Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.