Quotes of the day

Christie: I have to win some more than that. It won’t happen quickly. But if it’s not me, who’s it going to be?

Goldberg: Hillary Clinton? Marco Rubio? Ted Cruz?

Christie: Why Marco Rubio? I’m fascinated by this.

Goldberg: He’s a very smart, articulate young guy, great personal story—

Christie: —I didn’t ask you to give me what you read in the Times.

Goldberg: He’s very smart. I’ve talked to him. Very likable.

Christie: There’s not a lot of depth there.

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As Senator Marco Rubio has climbed the polls, the Floridian lacks one element that has proved to be pivotal for previous winners of New Hampshire’s presidential primary: a robust ground game that can generate enthusiasm and support when voters go to the polls.

On Tuesday, Rubio and a super PAC supporting his candidacy started an onslaught of 1,900 television advertisements — approximately $2.8 million worth — on the state’s top station. But underneath the buzz, GOP activists in New Hampshire are grumbling that Rubio has fewer staff members and endorsements than most of his main rivals and has made fewer campaign appearances in the state, where voters are accustomed to face-to-face contact with presidential contenders…

Ten GOP candidates have spent more days in New Hampshire this year than Rubio so far, according to a tally from WMUR-TV. Among the top tier of Republican candidates, only retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has spent less time in the Granite State. In what has become an unusual campaign, Rubio, businessman Donald Trump, and Carson have not invested as much in a ground operation as earlier leading presidential candidates…

“He is not helping himself with barely showing up and then being late when he does,” Gaisser said. “In New Hampshire, we see this as a unique opportunity for us to see him, but also for him to see us, and introducing himself. He looks good on television, but if he keeps this up he is blowing it.”

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Stories abound of Rubio and his team missing easy opportunities [in Iowa] to connect with voters: The time a line of people waited for him after an event, while his field staffers ate pizza backstage; the appearance he canceled at a major evangelical gathering for no apparent reason; the Saturday he spent here recently watching football with his state chairman, Jack Whitver, rather than holding public events.

The frustration is especially palpable among Iowa’s establishment-oriented Republicans, who have watched with concern recently as Rubio courts social conservatives, and who argue that despite the state’s ultra-conservative reputation, some 40 to 50 percent of caucus-goers are looking for an alternative to the likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

“He seems to be directing a lot of his time and energy into fighting Cruz and opening up his path on the right with social conservatives. That’s an interesting choice, since that lane seems to be about purity instead of electability,” says John Stineman, who ran Steve Forbes’s 2000 Iowa campaign. “Rubio seems to be the most establishment-friendly candidate with any legs at this point. Yet he seems to be avoiding that lane. I can’t quite figure it out.”…

Iowa Republicans from both wings of the party agree that Rubio is singularly positioned to dominate the right-of-center while winning enough conservative voters to carry Iowa with a winning coalition. The only problem, they say, is that he hasn’t invested in a ground game that identifies, recruits, and retains supporters

“I had someone from his campaign reach out to me today” to discuss a meeting, Robinson says. “It’s mid-December! This is something they should have done months and months ago. And I think it’s going to catch up with them. He’s always had great potential but he hasn’t been able to spark his candidacy with it. And that’s because not enough time and effort have gone into their relationship-building.”

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“The campaign is getting ready to release a list of supporters,” said an Iowa Republican backing Rubio. “I think people are going to be surprised — at least Iowa people will be surprised — by who’s on this team.”

“Rubio has a stronger team than people know,” added a Hawkeye State Republican insider who is neutral and requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “I travel around the state a lot; I see his people at those meetings. For some reason, the Rubio camp just hasn’t announced who they are yet.”…

The campaign’s approach to the first four nominating states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — is to compete in all of them equally and not prioritize one over the other. Rubio supporters say this explains why the senator hasn’t necessarily campaigned in individual early states as much as his competitors, whether Cruz in Iowa, or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in New Hampshire…

But the Rubio campaign is banking that this global strategy projects strength and makes him more competitive. The campaign, which has prided itself on running a lean shop, now numbers approximately 100 paid staff, up from around 40 to 50 a few months ago. Personnel, based in campaign headquarters in Washington and spread across important primary states, are likely to grow. Rubio supporters are confident that campaign ground operations will produce results…

“This is a very real organization on the ground,” said a political operative in the state who is supporting Rubio.

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At a dinner with Iowa religious leaders recently, Marco Rubio opened up about his relationship with Jesus. He described what he had learned from studying the Bible, especially the Apostle Peter, and spoke of the importance of self-sacrifice as illustrated in the story of Abraham.

But after he spoke, a pastor from Des Moines pressed him about a more earthbound issue that is troubling some conservative evangelical voters: Mr. Rubio’s support from the New York financier Paul Singer, a high-profile contributor to efforts to legalize same-sex marriage…

[T]he doubts religious conservatives express over that endorsement capture the difficulty Mr. Rubio faces as he seeks to stitch together a disparate coalition of powerful establishment figures like Mr. Singer and the faith-driven voters who are a critical part of the Republican base…

After hearing Mr. Rubio speak [about his faith] in Des Moines, one prominent Christian leader, David Lane, said he could not understand why the senator had not given a speech like that sooner. “He’s very, very conversant in the word,” he said. “This guy is not just a casual Christmas- and Easter-only churchgoer.”Continue reading the main story

But, as Mr. Lane put it, “a lot of people are already gone.”

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Matched against each other, Cruz leads Rubio among Republicans 54% to 46%. Rubio fares better when non-Republicans are included. Rubio leads Cruz among all registered voters by the same margin Cruz leads him by among Republicans.

A belief that Rubio is more popular than Cruz outside the party may be helping perceptions of Rubio’s electability. When asked whether the two Senators could win a general election, both Republicans and non-Republicans are more likely to view Rubio as a possible winner than to say Cruz could win. Half the public overall and 72% of Republicans think Rubio could win a general election, while fewer say that about Cruz.

In this poll, however, Trump is even more likely than Rubio to be viewed as a possible winner.

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At some point, you have to start winning caucuses and primaries to win the nomination. And it’s hard to identify right now where Rubio is supposed to claim his first victory.

Iowa does not look like Rubio Country; marginal candidates like Huckabee and Santorum will go for broke there; Cruz and Trump seem to be battling for the lead; the powerful nativist faction led by Representative Steve King will not let anyone forget Rubio’s immigration heresy; and for all his on-paper appeal, the Floridian doesn’t look like the sort of candidate who inspires the kind of passionate support necessary for a last-minute Caucus surge.

In New Hampshire, Trump is strong; the Iowa winner will get a bump; and even as the archconservative candidates fought against “winnowing” in Iowa, the remaining center-right candidates will go for broke, including Chris Christie, newly invigorated by his own strong debate performances, plus an endorsement from the Union-Leader.

Rubio’s running neck and neck with Ted Cruz in South Carolina polls, but the Texan probably has the higher upside in this profoundly conservative state. And Cruz has planned his entire campaign around winning the so-called “SEC Primary” on March 1. And on March 15, he will face the existential challenge of a winner-take-all Florida primary he cannot afford to lose. So far, in sporadic polling, Rubio has topped out at 18 percent in his home state.

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After Nevada comes the big date of March 1, Super Tuesday, when 12 states have primaries or caucuses. Most of the big ones are in the South—Texas, Georgia, Virginia. In Georgia, Rubio is right now a distant fourth. He’s also a distant fourth in Texas, where Trump and Cruz are tied for first. In Virginia, things look better: He’s only a distant third.

As for the other nine March 1 states, Rubio leads in none of them and looks to be better positioned in only two, Massachusetts and Colorado. Vermont Republicans are also voting that day, and I could find no polling of Vermont Republicans at all (but they’re so crucial!). So according to today’s polling, the best—best!—Rubio can hope for coming out of Super Tuesday is three wins in the first 16 contests. And two of those wins would be in Massachusetts and Vermont, two states where he or any Republican is going to lose next November by at least 25 points. If you’re trying to tell conservatives in the South and Midwest that you’re their man, it’s literally better to lose those two states. Colorado would be the one state that Rubio could claim as actually meaning something, but even if he overtook Trump there, he’d be 1-13 (tossing out the deep blue states). In the real red states—Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho—as of now, Trump is the guy who’s killing it…

For such a good general election candidate, Rubio is looking like a pretty lousy primary candidate! How can he survive this? He probably can’t. He needs a couple sugar daddies to keep him alive, who don’t mind underwriting a series of out-of-the-money finishes. And what he really needs is for Trump to collapse. If Trump falls apart, Rubio is in the game. If he doesn’t, it’s very hard to see Rubio’s numbers changing much, and if they don’t, it’s just not in the cards for someone finishing third and fourth repeatedly to hang in for that long.

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Because polls aren’t set in stone, it’s tempting to take this all with a grain of salt. And if Rubio were hustling—if he were using his cash and support to make contacts, find supporters, and prime them for voting—that would be the right choice. But the striking fact of his campaign is that he’s not on the grind, at least not compared to his rivals…

The Rubio campaign believes it can win with a “different kind of campaign that eschews spending on policy staffers, field operations, and other traditional aspects of a winning bid in favor of television advertising and digital outreach.” The Cruz team thinks differently, investing in voter contacts and direct interactions. “Ted Cruz has done perhaps the best job in the state, frankly,” says Sen. Tim Scott of the Cruz campaign in South Carolina. And while Rubio can still buckle down in New Hampshire, he must contend with Christie, who has devoted his entire campaign to winning the state.

It’s possible for Rubio to win the nomination without winning the early states. It took a month and six contests before Bill Clinton claimed his first win in the 1992 Democratic primaries. Indeed, Clinton claimed the lead with a second place finish in New Hampshire. Could Rubio do the same? Maybe, if Cruz can’t turn infrastructure into votes, and if Trump collapses. Or, if he sees an opening and consolidates the establishment behind his candidacy. Or even if the race comes to him and Cruz. But those are big “ifs.”

When Rubio entered the race, he was the promising candidate who faced major hurdles to success. Now, eight months later, he’s in the same position. Everything on paper says Rubio is the guy. Everything on the ground, so far, says we shouldn’t hold our breaths.

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