1. Florida Politics

At this stage, Marco Rubio is content being in the middle of the pack

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — The rain began and the rooftop bar, jammed with 400 people who just heard from Sen. Marco Rubio, cleared out. Scott Maanum hoped to meet him, but others surrounded Rubio for selfie after selfie and then the Republican presidential contender was gone, too.

"He was very inspiring," said Maanum, a 35-year-old physician. "He drives the point home about making a better future and that really connects with me."

Four months after launching his campaign in Miami, declaring "yesterday is over" in an unambiguous shot at Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, Rubio has made the generational argument his focus, and he used it repeatedly during a whirlwind trip to Iowa.

It's a way to project optimism that has been a winning formula for past presidents and to confront the challenge posed by his inexperience as a first-term senator who draws comparisons to Barack Obama.

"We inherited from our grandparents and parents the greatest nation in the history of the world, so now it's our turn," Rubio, 44, told the bar crowd Tuesday evening. "I know some people go around talking about making America great again," he said, referring to Donald Trump. "America is great."

But while Rubio left audiences impressed, he is mired in the middle of a sprawling pack of Republicans — many of whom are trying to capitalize on public disgust with Washington and are warning voters about taking a leap on another inspirational speaker.

Rubio and his advisers insist they are in the place they want, using a slow and steady playbook and avoiding the media glare that top candidates face.

They dismiss early polls as meaningless, reminding reporters that at this time in the last cycle, Rick Perry was the candidate to beat, and before that, some guy named Fred Thompson was supposed to cruise to the nomination.

"We don't run to finish in second or third place anywhere," Rubio told reporters at the Iowa State Fair, where he flipped pork burgers for the cameras.

Some have begun to question Rubio's strategy of trying to appeal to all corners of the GOP.

"I'm amazed at the breadth of interest in Sen. Rubio, from the most anti-establishment evangelical conservative Republicans to very middle of the road pragmatic Chamber of Commerce types," said Matt Strawn, former chairman of the Iowa GOP. "The challenge going forward is not just securing support from a broad coalition but maintaining that support when the shots are coming from both sides. Historically in the caucuses, there are two very disparate groups of Iowa Republicans who rarely coalesce behind the same candidate."

Strawn echoed others who say Rubio needs to get beyond the scripted comfort of a stump speech. He was supposed to hold a town hall Wednesday but canceled two days earlier, citing his kids' first day of school.

Rubio has been focusing more on raising money to build the resources for staff and campaign ads; the campaign has reserved $10 million in air time starting in November in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

"We believe that the only way to win the nomination in a field this big and competitive is by casting a wide net for support," spokesman Alex Conant said. "He is strong on national security issues, fiscally conservative, and 100 percent pro-life. But just as importantly, he has an optimistic, conservative vision for where he wants to lead America in this new century."

The campaign intends to get Rubio out more as fall approaches and more people tune in, and the two-day trip here was part of that effort.

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"Rubio!" a woman shouted as he made his way through the drizzle at the fair Tuesday morning.

He stopped briefly as a staffer took a photo and handed the woman a card in which she could retrieve it online (and add her name to Rubio's database). "I totally think we need a young person," said Shelley Moothart, 54. She added that Rubio has not yet emerged as her top pick.

Rubio is all right with that, knowing candidates will rise and fall out of contention.

He made his way into a livestock barn and did more handshaking before being squired away for an interview with NBC News. Over the din of fans and a man blow-drying a massive black cow, a reporter asked him about immigration, an issue Rubio avoids in his stump speech but cannot escape given his heritage and role helping write the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. Rubio's daughters stood just behind him and recoiled as a cow defecated, a blunt reminder just how far their father's political success has taken them from West Miami.

Grabbing an umbrella from an aide, Rubio hurried past food stands — "Already? It's not even 10:30," he joked with a group of women at a beer tent — en route to the "soapbox," a stage festooned with hay bales where presidential candidates give their stump speeches.

Rubio always begins with his Cuban immigrant parents' American Dream story then transitions into talk of a rapid economic and technological transformation that is wiping away traditional middle-class jobs. The United States needs to address its high corporate tax rate and regulations, he says. Rubio promotes modernizing higher education through alternatives to traditional four-year schools and fostering more vocational training for plumbers and machinists.

He warns about foreign threats, including a "lunatic" in North Korea who possesses nuclear weapons, in making the case for more military spending. And he drops in an applause-grabbing line about repealing Obamacare.

Then Rubio returns to his parents — crowds grow noticeably still as he talks of his bartender father and hotel maid mother — with calls that the "American Dream doesn't just survive but that it reaches more people and changes more lives than ever before.

"We are called not to just keep America special and great but to keep it greater than it's ever been. If we can achieve these things — and I believe that we can — we will go down in history as the next great American generation, we will go down in history as the authors of the new American century and we will leave for our children what our parents left for us: the single greatest nation that man has ever known."

Other candidates try to hit the same theme, but no one does it as compellingly as the bilingual, charismatic Rubio — which is why he remains a top concern for Democrats.

On Thursday, Quinnipiac University published polls for swing states Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania that showed Rubio beats Clinton in all three by wider margins than other Republicans, including Bush. A Rubio-Clinton matchup could turn his generational talking point into a potent reality.

"He's a newer, younger face," said Chuck Thornton, 60, who watched Rubio at the fair. "All and all, he's saying the right things America needs to hear, especially education."

Thornton said Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, had been his top choice but feels Walker has been flat and then Rubio had a strong performance at the first debate earlier this month. "If I'm our nominee," Rubio said, "how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck?"

Mike Clavell of Indianola and his 17-year-old daughter watched Rubio in the rain, but he did not share her enthusiasm. "I was more excited about him a year ago than I am today," he said, explaining he learned more about Rubio's immigration work and was increasingly turned off by Washington insiders.

"I'm not a Donald Trump supporter," Clavell said, "but I enjoy the fresh air he brings."

• • •

If this is the summer of outrage, driven by Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, Rubio is presenting himself as a happy warrior — a "conservative but not scary," as his campaign manager Terry Sullivan says.

Rubio's poll numbers may be middling but his favorability rating among Republican primary voters remains high. He's also the best communicator of the field and remarkably disciplined, maybe the least likely to commit a gaffe, attributes the campaign is trying to sell voters on.

Iowa state Sen. Jack Whitver, who introduced Rubio to a lunchtime crowd at a cafe in Des Moines, listed off the candidate's solid ratings with gun rights, anti-abortion and other conservative interest groups.

"That's not enough," he added. "If we ever want to win another national election, we need someone that can take our message to the American people. He can win. It does us no good to nominate another Republican candidate that never becomes president."

Rubio's team is expecting Florida rival Jeb Bush to stumble his way out of contention. Bush, too, is going for a long game, his financial muscle far exceeding the field, expressing nonchalance toward early polls. His campaign has been raising doubts about Rubio's readiness and lack of big legislative accomplishment.

Rubio sought a subtle contrast Tuesday at a GOP steak fry in Van Meter, 20 minutes west of Des Moines. He challenged the audience — a table of which wore red Jeb! stickers — to ask candidates why they are in the race.

"Some of them will tell you about what they've done in the past, and that's important," he said, obliquely referring to Bush and other governors running on their records. "Some of them will tell you how angry they are," referring to Trump, Ted Cruz and others employing sharp rhetoric.

But Rubio turned back to his family story, his own dealings with student loan debt and the financial struggles of raising four children.

"I honestly believe that no one running understands these challenges better than I do, the new world, the new economy, what families are going through," he said. "If I am the nominee we will be the party of the future and (Democrats) will be the party of the past. We will be the party of tomorrow, and they will be the party of yesterday."

The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and Rubio quickly left though a side door, running late for the crowd at the rooftop bar in the city.

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.