Oh my: Rubio lands top Romney aide in New Hampshire, signaling likely run for president

Everyone in the field, starting with Jeb Bush, was trying to snap up Jim Merrill. How likely is it that Merrill would have agreed to snub them and sign with Rubio if he hadn’t gotten an all but ironclad promise from the candidate himself that, yep, he’s doing this and he’ll be announcing soon?

Jim Merrill, who directed both of Mr. Romney’s New Hampshire primary bids, is joining Mr. Rubio’s political action committee as a senior adviser, a position that would put him at the helm of the Florida senator’s campaign in the first-in-the-nation primary state…

“What Mitt said was right: It’s time for the next generation of Republican leadership,” Mr. Merrill said, calling Mr. Rubio, 43, “the most exciting candidate in the field,” with substance to match charisma…

Asked if Mr. Rubio could win the New Hampshire primary, which is scheduled to take place one year from today, Mr. Merrill said: “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think he could. He knows what it means to engage voters, do town halls, run personal, door-to-door campaigns. I’ve never seen a more talented guy.”

Two weeks ago, I explained why it’s hard to see Rubio’s path to the nomination. New Hampshire seems like a better fit for him than Iowa: Rubio’s strength, a la Scott Walker, is that he can’t be pigeonholed as belonging to any particular niche of the party, and Iowa tends to reward niche candidates — the centrist versus the social con versus the libertarian, etc. (Then again, Walker’s polling well in Iowa right now.) As a super-hawk and amnesty fan, Rubio’s also the closest thing in the field to John McCain, who won New Hampshire twice; and no, I’m not counting Lindsey Graham, who’ll be running (if he runs) as a thorn in Rand Paul’s side on foreign policy and little more. So if Rubio’s going to make a play, New Hampshire’s the obvious place to make it. His favorables there among Republicans who have heard of him are already strong. Problem is, everyone else in the field apart from Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson is counting on New Hampshire for their big win too. Bush will dump an ocean of money on the state; Rand Paul will be rallying libertarians to fulfill the Ron Paul movement’s promise; Christie will probably campaign lightly in Iowa and focus heavily on New Hampshire, expecting that a more moderate state is his best shot at an early victory. Walker will covet NH too thinking, a la Rubio, that it prefers less niche-y candidates. Rubio and Merrill somehow need to beat all that. How?

Here’s a possibility I didn’t consider in my “Rubio’s path” post: What if Rubio becomes Romney’s guy in the field? The more I think about it, the more likely that seems. Obviously Romney wants to support an establishmentarian, which means Paul and Ted Cruz are out. Jeb Bush once seemed like the obvious choice for Mitt’s endorsement but that’s already ancient history; unless the rest of the center-right hopefuls collapse and we end up with a Bush vs. Paul or Bush vs. Cruz race, Romney won’t endorse him. Bobby Jindal would qualify as the sort of young, next-gen candidate whom Romney mentioned in his announcement about not running, but Jindal slammed Romney for his “47 percent” comments in the past and seems like too much of a longshot for Romney to risk his political capital on backing. Realistically, I think, Mitt’s options are Walker and Rubio, and in that case, Rubio probably has the inside track. He campaigned with Romney in 2012, was vetted for VP, and has spoken admiringly of Romney on foreign policy recently. Maybe more importantly, backing Rubio would be an extra thumb in Jeb Bush’s eye by elevating a guy whom Bushworld is hoping/assuming will be washed away once the Florida political establishment lines up behind Jeb. Romney could make Rubio an instant fundraising threat and give him an establishment credibility that casual center-right voters otherwise wouldn’t notice. I’m sure Rubio’s working hard to impress Mitt as I write this. The question is, how much of a risk is Romney willing to take in backing a guy who’s not (yet) considered a first-tier candidate?

Exit question: Remember when Rubio hinted last year that, contra Rand Paul, he wouldn’t run for Senate and president at the same time? When does he announce that he’s reconsidered and thinks running for both is just peachy? Over/under is three weeks.