Donald Trump has plateaued in the GOP primary race, having claimed all the voters he is likely to attract and offended most everyone else. Ben Carson, as we saw from his recent declaration that Muslims are unfit to be president (subsequently “clarified” to mean only Muslims who believe that the Constitution is superseded by Islam), has likewise limited himself to the fever-swamp Republicans. And while Carly Fiorina is on the rise (up to 9 percent, tied for third place in the latest Fox News national poll, and at nearly 7 percent, good for fourth place, in the RealClearPolitics average for Iowa), she is beginning to face the onslaught that greets every top-tier newcomer. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that there is no “establishment” candidate making progress.
To the contrary, amid the Fiorina surge and the exit of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas governor Rick Perry, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is steadily winning support and making his way up the polls. In the Fox national poll, he went from 4 percent to 9 percent. In one Florida poll, Rubio now leads Bush (19.2 to 11.3 percent). We also see a telltale sign of a candidate’s ascension: Trump is beginning to direct his childish, personal attacks in his direction. It is not hard to see why Rubio has been making steady progress.
Unlike Jeb Bush, he has had sterling debate performances. He has — unlike Trump, Carson, Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — eschewed pandering to the anti-immigration crowd and refrained from demagoguing on gay marriage. At a time when our foreign-policy messes are multiplying, Rubio remains a clear and forceful voice in support of American leadership. He also has offered up concrete reform policies on everything from taxes to higher education and health care. In short, he occupies the “conservative but sane” lane from which Republicans usually select their nominees.
With two political novices leading the race and with Fiorina on the rise, Rubio, comparatively, is quite experienced. Once thought to be a liability, his brief time in national office might now be seen as a midway point between “inexperienced outsider” and “career politician.” And for all those Republicans disappointed with Bush’s performance to date, suffering from “Bush fatigue” or concerned that Bush fatigue by others will hobble Bush in the general election, Rubio remains one of the few acceptable alternatives.
The field’s current configuration also favors Rubio. Trump, Carson and Cruz divide up support from the far right. Trump’s support has leveled off and is declining slightly, but he will not vanish anytime soon, thereby preventing Carson and Cruz from growing their own support. Walker failed to occupy the conservative, reformer role. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has yet to gain a foothold. Ohio Gov. John Kasich had a strong start but has not built on that. (More ominously, he is now wasting resources in Iowa, where he has virtually no hope of victory.) That leaves a huge swath of mainstream and moderate GOP voters — wary of Bush and horrified at the prospect of Trump, Carson or Cruz as the nominee — for Rubio to gobble up. And finally, like a cagey bicycle racer drafting behind each new hot candidate (Trump then Carson then Fiorina), he is letting others take the brunt of the attacks while he coasts, encountering few headwinds.
To be sure, Rubio still faces multiple challenges. First, he will need an early state in which to break through. Can he best Bush, Kasich and Christie in New Hampshire? It’s not clear he can wait until Florida to win a contest (ask Rudy Giuliani). Second, at some point he will need to engage an opponent or two, showing he can throw a punch. He will need to satisfy GOP voters and donors that he would be able to stand up to an opponent like Vice President Joe Biden, a street fighter who ran roughshod over Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, in the 2012 debate and who is emerging as a potential nominee. Third, Bush is sitting on $100 million, enough for plenty of positive ads to increase Bush’s favorability and negative ads to imply that Rubio is not ready to lead. While Bush has yet to catch fire, he is a highly competitive, disciplined man who is likely to improve with time. He remains Rubio’s main challenger in the “conservative but sane” lane.
This race has defied every prediction, but if you are a betting person, Rubio might be the odds-on favorite at this stage. Then again, many said the same of Walker.
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