Rubio: I'll be the Great Uniter the GOP needs

Can Marco Rubio unite the Republican Party? Does it actually want to be united? Rubio previewed this argument all throughout Iowa, and then in an ebullient quasi-victory speech last night. This morning, the surprisingly strong bronze medalist expanded and expounded on his theme of unity on ABC’s Good Morning America:

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“The Republican Party is being very clear: This is not a time for patience, this is a time for urgency,” the Florida senator said on “Good Morning America” today. …

“They told us at the beginning of this race that I shouldn’t even run, that it wasn’t my turn; I needed to wait in line,” Rubio, 44, added.

He went on to say the people of Iowa realized he was their “best chance.”

“I give the country the best chance not just to unify the conservative movement,” he said, “but to grow it.”

The first question is this: Do Republicans actually want unity? The sustained support for the myriad of candidates all the way down to the Iowa caucus suggests otherwise. Forget the failed predictions about Donald Trump for the moment; how many people thought marginal candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum would still be slogging through the cornfields as late as yesterday? Who guessed that Rand Paul, who has a race to win in Kentucky, would still be aiming at New Hampshire by Groundhog Day? Jim Gilmore only got 12 votes in Iowa, but more than 13,000 voted for Paul, Huckabee, and Santorum combined, accounting for seven percent of the vote. Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich combined for another 7%, and Ben Carson got 9% on his own. That’s almost a quarter of all Iowa Republican votes going for also-rans.

Next questions: which Republicans can Rubio unify? Trump’s appeal has been more to outsiders, although it also includes regular Republican voters. Cruz’ appeal is also to disaffected Republicans. Put together, Cruz and Trump represent slightly more than half of Republican votes in last night’s primaries. Rubio could make a pretty good case for rallying the other half, and if he did, he might win the nomination. In fact, a three-way race would look pretty good for Marco Rubio at the moment, as long as it was truly a three-way race, with Bush, Kasich, Carson, and Christie hanging it up. A two-way race might not look as good, even though it would be closer to unity.

Rubio’s better argument is that he has more upside in a general election — a lot more upside — than either Cruz or Trump. But primaries are won on base appeal more than general-election calculations, perhaps especially this cycle (and the same is true in the Democratic race, by the way). Unity makes a good code word for the electability argument. Expect to hear it a lot from Rubio, even while Ted Cruz makes a pretty good argument that his brand of unity is what carried him to victory last night.

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