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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Can Rubio win even if he loses?



That's the question Stu Rothenberg raises in a new column looking at Marco Rubio's campaign strategy.

No Republican has been nominated for president since 1976 without winning either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.

This cycle, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may need to survive a series of early losses before he can emerge as a frontrunner for his party’s nomination. While he is a favorite of pragmatic conservatives, Rubio has yet to consolidate support from the establishment, and some GOP strategists are scratching their heads over his strategy, which they regard as risky.

Critics equate Rubio’s general approach to the nomination calendar – which downplays the Florida senator’s need to “win” a February contest as long as he runs “competitively” – to the strategy employed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

Giuliani ignored most of the early contests (playing only half-heartedly in New Hampshire) and instead placed a huge bet on Florida’s January 29th primary, which he hoped would jump-start his campaign and create momentum going into the February 5th Super Tuesday contests, which included New York, California, New Jersey and more than a dozen other contests.

Those who wonder about Rubio’s approach call it a passive strategy that relies on other candidates losing rather than on Rubio winning, and they argue that a series of defeats could well put Rubio in a hole from which he cannot escape.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appear to be putting all of their chips on performing well in New Hampshire, and if one or more of them does surprisingly well, that certainly could change the conventional wisdom about the GOP “finalists” and Rubio’s prospects.

Rubio supporters dismiss the Giuliani comparison, noting that while the Florida senator isn’t going all-in on one of the first three contests, his campaign (and his super PAC) is playing heavily in all of the February primaries and caucuses.

They argue that Giuliani adopted his strategy because, as the pro-choice, moderate, former mayor of New York City, he could not compete in the early states without being defined as the moderate that he was. His Florida strategy followed from his poor positioning in the party and limited strategic options.


This year, given the field, it would be a much greater gamble for Rubio to go all-in on one early contest, say New Hampshire, than it would to adopt the approach he has chosen.

None of this means that his approach is without risk. If Rubio fares as poorly in this year’s earliest contests as Giuliani did in 2008, then the Florida senator will never get to his home state’s March 15 primary. And if another pragmatic candidate wins two or three of the early contests – or even runs well ahead of Rubio – that too would create massive problems for the senator.

Polling shows Rubio broadly acceptable within the GOP and a formidable general election nominee. Given that, and considering the size and make-up of the field, his caucus and primary calendar strategy seems reasonable.

Of course, that certainly does not assure him of being in his party’s “finals,” or of convincing a majority of GOP delegates in Cleveland that he is the man to take on Hillary Clinton. But at the very least, it means he is not recycling Giuliani’s failed strategy.

Rubio, on the other hand, is well-liked, well-funded and well-positioned, strategically, and he has the ability to play in many of the GOP “lanes.” And, although Rubio is competing in all of the early contests, he has the luxury of not having to finish first in any of them. He merely needs to “do well.”

Full column here.

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 11:59am]


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