In New Hampshire, the night after the Iowa caucuses, it was hard not to feel the “Marco-mentum.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stood on a stage surrounded by more than 700 rowdy supporters, who filled Exeter’s picturesque town hall to the brink.
Rubio delivered the same stump speech he’s been sticking to for months. But Tuesday night, fresh off his surprisingly strong third-place Iowa finish, the crowd ate up every line.
They roared as he recounted his family’s immigrant, working-class roots, saying his parents would drive him through rich Las Vegas suburbs and tell him, “If you want to be financially successful and live in a house like that, you live in the one country in the world where it doesn’t matter that your dad is a bartender and your mother’s a maid. You can do that, too.”
Rubio is framing himself as a candidate uniquely qualified to both unite Republican voters and reach out to lower-income and minority communities that have delivered reliably Democratic votes in recent decades.
“If I’m our nominee, we will win, and the Democrats know this,” Rubio told another packed venue in Laconia on Wednesday. “They do not want to run against me. There is a reason why the Democrats, and in particular Hillary Clinton, attack me five times for every time they want to attack someone else. They know that if I’m our nominee, they lose.”
Republicans aren’t too keen on comparisons to Barack Obama these days, but there’s a bit of Obama in Rubio’s candidacy. Both centered their pitch around a powerful personal narrative that taps into the American dream and the appeal of a telegenic first-term lawmaker and his young family.
That cuts both ways. Other Republicans are hammering Rubio for being too inexperienced. Those critiques have been especially pointed from the three governors he’s trying to fend off in the “establishment lane” — John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.
Bush kicked off his final New Hampshire push Monday night by drawing a not-unsubtle parallel between Obama and Rubio, his one-time ally. He called Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz “two people that are back-benchers, that have never done anything of consequence in their lives. They’re gifted beyond belief. They can give a great speech. But I think it’s time for us to recognize that maybe what we need is someone who can lead.”
Christie has begun referring to Rubio as “the boy in the bubble,” mocking both Rubio’s youth and his propensity to deliver the exact same speech at event after event.
Perhaps mindful of Christie’s critique, Rubio’s campaign made a point to hold several brief press availabilities during Wednesday’s town hall swing.
The four-way tussle among Rubio, Kasich, Christie and Bush is heated because the stakes are high. Republican power-brokers — the much-referenced “establishment” — have made it clear they’re worried about either a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz nomination.
All four campaigns are banking on elected officials and high-powered donors to rally around whichever campaign emerges on top in New Hampshire. A repeat strong showing from Rubio would all but anoint him as that establishment bet.
Rubio — mindful of how anti-Washington and anti-establishment the electorate is this year — is quick to point out the irony.
“I can tell you that when it comes to the establishment, which is, people who have been involved in politics for a long time, they didn’t want me to run for president,” he told reporters. “And they didn’t want me to run for Senate five years ago.”
But in a Trump- and Cruz-dominated primary, party power-brokers are desperate for someone to rally around. If Rubio does well for a second week in a row, he’ll likely be that candidate.