[W]ith Jeb dead in the water, Kasich unable to gain traction and Christie struggling at the back of the pack, Rubio had what looked like a perfect political moment. Polls indicate he’s the most electable Republican in a race against Clinton, and pundits and the GOP establishment waited for his seemingly inevitable surge.

And waited. And waited…

Rubio’s apparent reluctance to really work the trail is all a bit mystifying. He says he’s missing Senate votes because he’s busy campaigning, and then people in New Hampshire and Iowa get miffed that he’s nowhere to be found. You don’t need a lot of money to barnstorm, which is why it’s usually the preferred tactic of candidates like Rubio, who has lagged behind Cruz and Bush in the fundraising race.

TV ads are expensive, so candidates light on cash, the thinking goes, need to really be working voters on the ground. Rubio’s staff, meanwhile, has indicated that they reach enough voters through Fox News and the debates to make up for whatever deficiencies on the trail. So far, his stable but not-great primary polling doesn’t provide a lot of evidence to back up that theory.

[A] few people have told me that since Rubio hasn’t targeted a single state for an early victory, as Ted Cruz has done in Iowa or Chris Christie has done in New Hampshire, Rubio may be being spending less time in each particular state, but he’s not doing less campaigning overall. I decided to look into that, and it appears to be untrue. It looks like Rubio really has spent less time on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, though from here on out that’s sure to change. Many argue that his absence up until now will matter, though…

He has also made fewer trips to each individual state. In Iowa (see below), he’s made 18 visits and per the Des Moines Register spent 31 days on the ground and hosted 57 events. Cruz, who has invested a lot in Iowa, of course, has made 27 visits, and, again per the Register, spent 41 days on the ground and hosted 91 events. He even lags Trump, who’s largely run a national campaign, but who has made 23 visits to the Hawkeye State…

The stats for New Hampshire are below. There, it is Chris Christie who has dominated: He’s made 32 trips there, compared with Rubio’s 18 and Cruz’s 14. Per NECN’s New Hampshire candidate tracker, Rubio has made 40 stops in the state and Cruz has made 39.

Rubio has a light footprint in Iowa and New Hampshire. Eschewing the kind of labor-intensive retail campaigning that voters in those early-voting states traditionally demand, Rubio is waging a gamble by running a more national- and media-driven campaign. He has also placed a premium on landing wealthy donors, with notable successes.

As a result, in New Hampshire, which may be Rubio’s best bet for an early state victory, some Republican voters view him as a man of mystery

“It’s a problem for him if he’s not gonna show up here,” said Bill Dunham, 68, of Brentwood, N.H., an undecided voter at a rally for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Saturday in Exeter. “Nobody’s ever called me on the phone or emailed me saying Marco Rubio is going to be in Exeter—or somewhere around here. I don’t even know where he is at the moment.”…

John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said Rubio is betting on two things: first, that no candidate emerges from Iowa or New Hampshire with significant momentum; and second, that Trump and Cruz will fail to unify the party, in which case one or both could falter in later contests, particularly the delegate-rich blue states. “But I still think that failing to win either [Iowa or New Hampshire] poses challenges—especially for a candidate like Rubio who is also unlikely to win [South Carolina],” Sides said.

Republican activists — including many who appreciate Rubio’s formidable political gifts and view him as the party’s best hope for beating Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton — say they are alarmed at his seeming disdain for the day-to-day grind of retail politics. Even some staunch supporters are anxious…

“Nobody is going to win this presidential campaign by camping out in New York and D.C. and running a media campaign,” Cruz told reporters recently when asked about Rubio. “There are some races that believe that their path to victory is courting the Washington establishment, is courting the big-money donors all day long, as is hoping that their friends in the media can just push a narrative. Campaigns are about seeking the support of the voters.”…

“Why Rubio has not been working the evangelical constituency makes no sense. It just doesn’t make sense,” said David Lane, a conservative strategist who has been organizing pastors to become more involved in politics. “Cruz has done event after event after event.”

Steve Deace, an influential Iowa radio host who endorsed Cruz, said of Rubio: “He did all the big cattle calls, but he didn’t put in the work on the ground either prior or post those events. I think his team had a skewed view of Iowa based on their involvement with [now-senator] Joni Ernst last year, and how they helped her win her primary. But this is a caucus, not a primary, which requires months of relationship-building that he never did.”

“The campaign efforts for Marco Rubio in Iowa can very easily be perceived as wanting to place in the top three in the caucus and not necessarily to win,” said Kenney Linhart, a pastor in Des Moines who is supporting the Rubio campaign. Regardless of how serious Mr. Rubio is about trying to win the state, Mr. Linhart added, the belief that he is not is harmful: “Perception is as powerful as intent or will.”…

From the Rubio campaign’s perspective, not putting a marker down yet in any state means not having to set expectations that might not be met. His advisers do not want to face the possibility of fading in a state they said they could win. And they have told supporters and donors that Jeb Bush’s surprisingly lackluster campaign left them with more time to make their move…

In the meantime, advisers are relying on a robust digital outreach program in the early-voting states and using local and national television to increase Mr. Rubio’s visibility. When he campaigns, he tends to eschew small towns and venues for larger population centers and media markets.

“Exposure is Marco’s friend,” said his pollster, Whit Ayers. “And exposure is the enemy of a whole lot of the rest of these candidates.”

The Rubio campaign particularly disdains field offices, the storefronts of retail politics: brick-and-mortar locations where volunteers assemble, local mailings are coordinated and paid staffers work late nights. Deputy campaign manager Rich Beeson has argued that staff can “set up in a Starbucks with wireless and get just as much done.” The tasks that staff and volunteers traditionally perform in these offices — dividing turf for volunteer canvassing, calling prospective voters and distributing information about the candidate — can now be accomplished using online tools without the cost and hassle of setting up a local presence…

According to political science research, Rubio avoids the establishment of a ground game at his peril. Field offices work because they provide a location for the coordination and training that make voter contact valuable. Campaigns that can contact supporters personally to encourage them to vote should make every effort to do so. Knocking on doors can increase turnout by nearly 10 percent, and effective phone calls can encourage an additional 4 percent of voters to head to the polls. Without a field office in an area, candidates will find it much more difficult to translate these tactics into victory.

To be fair, neither canvassing nor phone calls technically require a field office. If a campaign’s main goal is merely to contact as many voters as possible, staff members will often spare themselves the time, effort and cost of training local volunteers by hiring professional callers and recruiting canvassers from out of state. But when campaigns take this shortcut, they often pay the price.

Rumors of the Rubio campaign’s weak ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire have led many to conclude that his strategists don’t believe he needs an early-state victory to remain competitive as the primary season moves into March. But that narrative overlooks the reality on the ground here in Nevada, where his team has crafted the grassroots campaign that’s missing elsewhere. The result, according to more than a dozen Nevada GOP operatives and state officials, is the most organized and impressive operation of the Republican field.

“Rubio’s path to the first three states is small,” says one Republican state official. “It’s obvious that his campaign sees Nevada as his firewall.”

Talk of Rubio’s Nevada ground game has been muted for good reason: Few candidates have invested resources in the state, and Rubio has benefited. Donald Trump has some paid staff but little ground presence. Chris Christie’s first Nevada appearance came during last Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas. Although Jeb Bush has built an impressive operation in the state and, along with Rubio, has been courting Nevada’s sizable Mormon population for months, sources say it is now Ted Cruz who is nipping at Rubio’s heels

The wheels are in motion for a competitive contest between the two freshman senators. But not lost on either camp is Trump’s presence in the race. Though ground games and organization define sound political strategy here, and Trump has little to speak of in Nevada, it may not matter, according to Ralston. “I’ve been saying this all along,” he says. “Trump could get on Twitter the morning of February 23, tweet out caucus locations, and have people show up in droves. It could turn the whole thing on its head.”

And yet Cruz clearly believes Rubio is best positioned to consolidate the other lane of the race. Wearing a mustard-colored flannel shirt and sipping from a paper cup of coffee, Cruz, riding in the middle row of a rented Ford Expedition, repeatedly notes the party leadership’s affection for his colleague from Florida. “The establishment is enthusiastically unifying behind Marco Rubio,” he says. The only thing standing in the way of their matchup, Cruz adds, is Rubio’s performance in New Hampshire.

“Marco is perceived by many to be the most formidable candidate in the moderate lane. But he has serious competition in the moderate lane,” Cruz says. “Look, the winner of the moderate lane has to win New Hampshire. And right now there are a number of moderates who are competing vigorously for New Hampshire, and at this point it is not clear to me who will win.”

The truth is, Cruz’s team has come to view several of the so-called moderates whose campaigns depend on New Hampshire — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich — as critical allies in the fight against Rubio. Cruz is desperate for one of them, or some combination of them, to prevent Rubio from winning the establishment-friendly state and solidifying his status as the center-right favorite early in the primary season.

Without a win in New Hampshire, Cruz and his team say, it’s impossible to see Rubio clearing the moderate lane of his rivals as the race moves to South Carolina, Nevada, and the Super Tuesday states. A fragmented center-right vote helps Cruz not only by lowering his vote share necessary to win, they argue, but also by delaying the emergence of an establishment favorite around whom the GOP’s power brokers can rally.

It’s going to be exceptionally difficult for an establishment candidate to play catch-up through the Southern contests that dominate the schedule from Feb. 20 (South Carolina) through mid-March after losing New Hampshire. Recent Republican nominating history, indeed, would suggest that it’s impossible to win the nomination after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki pointed out last week, no Republican has ever done it in the modern primary system going back to the 1970s. One Democrat has—Bill Clinton in 1992—but only because he was going against two regional candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his surprise second-place finish in the latter set him up neatly for a run through his more natural territory in the South and beyond. If Bush or Rubio placed second in New Hampshire, they’d be doing so in friendly territory before going into enemy territory—the precise opposite of Clinton…

So how can Rubio do what he needs to do in New Hampshire? Parking himself there and doing several town halls per day would help. As would successfully convincing Kasich to pack it in right now, or urging the New Hampshire Union Leader to retract its Christie endorsement and endorse him instead…

[I]f both McCain and the winner of the most recent New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney, endorsed Rubio ahead of the primary, Rubio might be granted the sort of deus ex machina he—and the Republican establishment—need to turn this race around.

Or … nothing will happen, and either Trump or Cruz will become the nominee.

The question that won’t be answered until Iowa voters caucus on Feb. 1 is whether the relative lack of emphasis that Rubio and his team have put on building organizations in the first two voting states will come home to roost. Organization can’t be built in a month, particularly when you are competing against other candidates — namely Ted Cruz — who have been at this for the better part of the last year.

But, what if organization — as traditionally defined in politics — is overrated in an election like this one where a real estate developer who has never held office before is the clear front-runner for the party’s nomination? What if this election amounts to one big national primary where the candidates running ahead at the national level are the ones who win the early states? Where popularity and buzz supplant precinct captains as the coin of the political realm?

That’s the gamble — and the secret — at the heart of Rubio’s campaign. The Florida senator casts himself on the campaign trail as one of a new generation of leaders, breaking with the ways of the past to find new solutions to longtime problems. The campaign he has built — and the way he’s executing it — suggest a radical commitment to shaking up the established order.