Placing third, at best, is rarely the stated goal for a presidential candidate.
Yet that was exactly the focus for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as they barnstormed Iowa this weekend, a little more than two weeks before this state holds the first presidential nominating contest in the nation.
Hundreds of people braved temperatures hovering around zero to jam Rubio events, and the senator spent nearly as much time shaking hands and taking pictures with voters as he did speaking and answering questions. Christie was on a similar mission, traversing nearly half the state to greet voters at breakfast and hold town halls in bars and even an ice cream parlor.
The two Republicans’ shared imperative: to head into the New Hampshire primary eight days later as the best-positioned establishment alternative to businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“It would be a great shot of adrenaline going into New Hampshire, where they might find a more favorable electorate,” said former state GOP chairman Matt Strawn, who saw both men speak Saturday.
Moderate and business-minded Republican voters, either in Iowa or nationally, have yet to coalesce behind a candidate. If an establishment candidate such as Rubio or Christie has a stronger-than-expected showing when Iowans caucus on Feb. 1, their hope is that will prompt voters in the upcoming primaries to solidify support behind their campaign, notably in New Hampshire. Voters there habitually nominate mainstream Republican candidates because the electorate is less influenced by evangelical Christians than Iowa’s.
Cruz and Trump are battling for first place in the Iowa caucuses, with the senator winning the support of 25% in polling released last week by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics, and the businessman receiving 22%. Rubio came in third with 12%, in a virtual tie with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who received 11%. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also fighting for establishment support, notched 4%.
Christie, who clocked a lowly 3%, was frank about his chances.
“I’m not going to win the Iowa caucuses. How about I make that declaration?” Christie told the Des Moines Register’s editorial board Friday. “But I don’t have to. I just think I’m going to do a heck of a lot better here than most people think.”
Christie’s stated goal is to do the best among all the governors in the race.
Rubio was not quite as candid, but he argued that he had momentum here.
“We feel very positive about the turnout we’re seeing, getting people signing up to caucus,” he told reporters after a town hall in Johnston on Saturday. “We feel very optimistic. In about two weeks, you’ll find out why.”
Voters in Iowa decide late, he cautioned. Polling released last week found more than half of likely GOP caucus-goers had not picked a candidate, or could change their mind if they had.
Rubio was criticized in recent weeks for holding few events and for spending time only near cities while skipping rural areas. On this trip, Rubio’s schedule included eight town halls scattered in every corner of Iowa.
Rubio paints a dire picture of a declining America, before arguing that he has the skills to right the nation’s course.
He repeatedly attacked Cruz by name, beginning his critique by noting that “Ted is my friend,” but that the pair disagree on two main issues. Rubio argues that Cruz’s tax proposal is similar to a value-added tax, and that Cruz is soft on national security because he voted for a budget that would have reduced military funding and called whistle-blower Edward Snowden a “public servant.”
“Snowden’s a traitor,” Rubio told an overflowing crowd in Johnston. “Here’s one thing I know: In my first day in office, more than any other Republican running, I am going to keep the nation safe.”
Rubio and his allies are also saturating the airwaves. Through Jan. 9, Rubio and a super PAC supporting his bid spent $7.8 million on television ads in Iowa, second only to Bush and his allies, according to NBC News. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1, Rubio and the super PAC have bought time to air about 7,000 ads — one-third of all the political ads that have been purchased, according to a Des Moines Register analysis.
Christie’s effort is much more modest. He unveiled his first Iowa ad a few days ago. But he has a history with the state’s Republicans — he campaigned here repeatedly for Gov. Terry Branstad and for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. He headlined the governor’s birthday fundraiser, and a number of people in Branstad’s circle are working for the New Jersey governor’s campaign.
In Ames on Saturday, Christie spoke about serving as a U.S. attorney after the Sept. 11 attacks and sought to differentiate himself from Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
“It’s good to be entertained. But we’re not electing the entertainer in chief.... We’re electing the commander in chief,” Christie said in a barely veiled reference to Trump. Then he turned to the two first-term senators.
“We want to elect someone who can actually do the job,” he said. “First-term United States senators are wonderful people. But they’ve never made a serious decision of consequence and been held accountable for it.”
Marianne Rizk, a 28-year-old psychology graduate student from Iowa City, said she was impressed.
“It really is a breath of fresh air that he’s so blunt and so honest. His personality makes me believe America won’t get bullied,” she said.
But Rizk is also considering Rubio.
“I feel kind of stuck,” she said.
Mehta reported from Johnston and Megerian from Ames, Iowa.