DES MOINES, Iowa — Marco Rubio isn't expecting to win the Iowa caucuses Monday night — the first test in the 2016 presidential election — but the state is crucial to his strategy of building momentum in what he is convinced will be a drawn-out battle for the Republican nomination.
A strong showing will propel him into New Hampshire and South Carolina, while a weaker one could hobble his chances, underscoring his risky gamble of not focusing on one early nominating state.
No other candidate may have as much riding on Iowa, and Rubio, who has failed to deliver the breakout moment many projected months ago, showed it in recent days. He went on a tear, holding town halls, injecting his stump speech with urgency and highlighting his faith in an appeal to evangelicals.
"I've got more to think about now," said an impressed Jay Jackson, 44, who showed up Tuesday to see Rubio in Marshalltown, one of four town halls the presidential candidate held that day.
Jackson likes Ted Cruz, who is ahead of Rubio in the polls, but said questions about Cruz's temperament left doubt. "Angry is a buzzword," Jackson said. Rubio has sounded angrier, too, but overall presents an optimistic message and vows to unite the GOP, a line that resonated with Jackson.
Rubio needs Jackson — and hordes of other Cruz supporters — to caucus for him Monday. If Rubio can come in second to frontrunner Donald Trump, it would be a major boost heading into next week's primary in New Hampshire, perhaps making it a two-man race for the nomination.
Rubio's campaign, though, is planning on third place and a long slog to the nomination.
That was holding Saturday evening as a new poll showed Rubio with 15 percent support of likely GOP caucus participants, well behind Trump (28) and Cruz (23). Rubio had gained three percentage points since early January, according to the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll. But his support had declined in the four days of polling as he's come under withering attacks from Cruz and Jeb Bush over immigration. Cruz also slipped.
"Any time you start a campaign with, what, 17 candidates, no one should expect to have it wrapped up after a state or two votes. We think this is going to go on for several months," Rubio's top strategist, Todd Harris, said in an interview Wednesday after an event in a West Des Moines bar that attracted more than 300 people.