This should be Marco Rubio's moment. The Florida senator achieved an impressive third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, behind Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Third place may not sound like much, but Rubio outperformed his poll numbers handily and finished only a hair behind Trump. That was enough to allow him to indulge in a victory speech — and proceed to New Hampshire as the presumed front-runner in the mini-field of candidates not named Cruz or Trump.
Rubio's challenge now is making that status permanent and becoming the only credible alternative to the two insurgent candidates, which won't be easy. There are other candidates in the "establishment" lane, and none of them is ready to give way to a first-term senator.
By traditional measures, it's an impressive lane: two successful big-state governors, John Kasich of Ohio and Jeb Bush, Florida's former executive; a less-successful, but still significant figure, Chris Christie of New Jersey; and Rubio himself, a rising star who is probably the most eloquent candidate in either party.
Leading up to the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Rubio will argue that his showing in Iowa makes him the logical choice, and that he's the only candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton in November. "If you're not with Marco, you're electing the Democrats," a new ad from Rubio's super PAC warned on Tuesday. But "electability" is an argument that, historically, moves only a minority of Republicans, even in pragmatic New Hampshire.
Rubio has a substantive problem, too. The senator is very smart, very smooth — and very malleable. He started in politics as a protege of Jeb Bush; now he's running against Bush. He came to Washington as one of the original tea party insurgents, then morphed into an establishment conservative — and now, in the heat of the campaign, he's trying to reverse his evolution.
In his most dramatic moment in the Senate, Rubio cosponsored bipartisan immigration reform — only to discover that most Republican voters hated the idea, so he renounced it. (He's still living that down; at nearly every debate, Cruz accuses him of the inexpiable sin of "collaboration with President Obama and Chuck Schumer.")
Lately, Rubio has become ever tougher on immigration. He once said terrorism shouldn't be a reason to restrict legal immigration, but in January, after fear of terrorism rose, he said "the entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first."
He's changed his position on trade, as well; once a major proponent of Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership, he now says he is reviewing the agreement and does not know whether he will vote for it.
On a more stylistic note, Rubio began his campaign promising to be a candidate of optimism — but when optimism didn't sell, he added a dose of pessimism.
"As I travel the country," he said last month, "people say what I feel. This country is changing. It feels different. We feel like we're being left behind and left out."
Rubio argues that he's the only candidate who can unite the two wings of a party at war with itself. He has tried to be the GOP's Goldilocks candidate, conservative but not reactionary or angry. The danger is that he may have made himself too moderate for Cruz voters, too conciliatory for Trump voters — and too conservative for Bush and Kasich voters.
In an earlier, simpler era, Republicans might have turned to their party's establishment — its officeholders and big donors — to sort this out. But grandees can't shove lagging candidates toward the exit any more — mostly because they have succeeded in eliminating almost any limit on campaign contributions.
Bush raised more than $155 million up to the end of last year, and still has plenty left to spend. Even Kasich, an underdog moderate, raised almost $23 million, spent most of it in New Hampshire, and went back to donors for another $4 million last month. So there's no reason for them to withdraw. Instead, they're staying the course and trying to knock Rubio out of his privileged spot.
There seems to be a personal edge to the competition, too. Rubio says he sees no reason to wait in line behind his elders. The elders have responded combatively, suggesting he should get off their lawn. Christie, for instance, dismissed Rubio on Tuesday as "the boy in the bubble," and "someone who's never done anything in life … telling everybody his canned speech."
Ultimately, Rubio's bronze medal as the establishment candidate who did best in Iowa may not count for much in New Hampshire. The other establishment candidates show no sign of lining up behind him. Thanks partly to their battle for the establishment "lane," they're still likely to hand first place in the nation's first primary to the least traditional candidate of all: Donald Trump.