COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Polls show Marco Rubio lodged firmly behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as Iowa voters prepare to caucus Monday, but a “win” for the Florida senator doesn’t necessarily mean he has to come in first place.
For Mr. Rubio and other Republicans trailing the two front-runners, history shows that coming in first may not be as important as exceeding expectations by outperforming the polls at Monday’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
Consider that the last two Republican presidential nominees — Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 — both lost Iowa. In fact, Mr. McCain placed fourth.
“Remember that the people who win here do not necessarily go on to win the presidency,” said Catholic University politics professor Claes Ryn, who clustered Saturday with several hundred Rubio supporters at a town hall here at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Mr. Ryn noted that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum placed first four years ago in Iowa, “and he went nowhere.”
For Mr. Rubio, the timing of the caucus couldn’t be better, given that late polls suggest he’s currently experiencing something of a surge. After a strong debate performance Thursday, and a correspondingly weak showing by Mr. Cruz, Mr. Rubio has benefited from buzz that he’s the candidate with momentum.
An Iowa Poll released late Saturday appeared to confirm that. The poll, sponsored by Bloomberg Politics and The Des Moines Register, showed the race tightening, with billionaire businessman Mr. Trump at 28 percent, followed by Texas Sen. Cruz at 23 percent.
Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, had his best showing to date with 15 percent, up from 9 percent in October. He also put more distance between himself and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who sits in fourth place with 10 percent.
Mr. Cruz “is headed the wrong way, and he’s got someone behind him who’s growing: Marco Rubio,” said Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos on ABC’s “This Week.” “Even though Cruz has a great organization, this may be a Trump and Rubio race down the road.”
Mr. Trump drew another big crowd here Sunday at Kirn Middle School, but the Iowa Poll showed that 45 percent of caucus voters say they could still change their minds.
“I don’t want Trump. That is one thing I do feel strongly about,” said Republican voter Jennifer Hughes of Glenwood, Iowa. “I had an open mind until I saw him in person, and then I saw he was even more narcissistic. I thought that the press was possibly just spinning, just showing sound bites of him being obnoxious, but no, he’s like that all the time.”
Roger Bolte of Council Bluffs said he was “95 percent” in Mr. Rubio’s camp, in part because “I think he has the best chance to beat” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Even as Mr. Rubio casts himself as the candidate best able to defeat the former first lady and secretary of state, he also moved Sunday to keep expectations from spiraling too high.
“We always knew we were an underdog in Iowa. Other people have a lot more people on the ground here — they spent a lot more money,” Mr. Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But we’re going to have a good night.”
Another candidate poised to exceed expectations in Iowa is Mr. Carson, who holds the same appeal for evangelical voters as did the winners of the last two caucuses, Mr. Santorum in 2012 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.
The difference this year is that there are several candidates targeting the so-called values voters, including past winners Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huckabee, as well as Mr. Cruz and, increasingly, Mr. Rubio.
“Many voices are raised — shrill, boastful, full of themselves — but then there’s one,” says the ad. “More thoughtful, strong, a brilliant surgeon whose inner strength and principled life speaks for itself.”
For the rest of the pack, any number over 5 percent would be considered a pleasant surprise. Behind Mr. Carson is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul with 5 percent and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 3 percent, whose numbers remain the same as in the previous Iowa poll.
At the bottom, with 2 percent, are Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Santorum, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Mr. Christie assured voters Sunday that there remains plenty of campaign for bottom-half candidates like himself to gain momentum, whatever their performance in Iowa, telling a voter from across the state line that “I’ll see you in Nebraska.”
“Iowa’s the most important thing until a week from Tuesday, when New Hampshire’s the most important thing,” Mr. Christie told a crowd here at Quaker Steak & Lube. “And then, after next Tuesday, New Hampshire’s the most important thing until a week from Saturday, when South Carolina will be the most important thing. And then the 11 states on March 1 will be the most important thing.”
He added, “And it’ll be make or break, do or die, every night on the news. No, it’s not. You know when it’s do or die? When someone gets enough delegates to clinch the nomination. And that’s months away.”
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