As I sit at the Des Moines airport about to head home, it is worth noting that the buzz about momentum with Marco Rubio is true. He is inching up in polls here, the crowds are getting larger at his rallies, and he is doing this despite a concerted effort to beat the crap out of him on television and radio.
Marcomentum is a real thing.
The problem for Rubio is the really high volume of attacks on him and the fact that he continues to battle for third place.
That is, however, also Rubio’s advantage. Virtually every Republican pundit on the ground in Iowa right now is pushing the story that a third place win for Rubio is a victory. The field is being seeded to turn Monday night’s story not into a story about a Cruz or Trump win, but a Rubio surge at the last minute that they hope will carry over to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
That may actually work, given sympathy for Marco in the right of center press, including syndicated columnists, editorialists, and talking heads on television. So many Republicans fear and loath Ted Cruz, a third place win by Marco, particularly if he is close to second place, is going to fuel front page stories in newspapers across America on Tuesday and lead stories on the nightly news about Marco’s come from behind victory.
The reality is that Rubio could go to second place behind Ted Cruz. Given the poor state of the Trump campaign’s ground operation, Cruz may very well come in first with Rubio second. If that happens, Marco Rubio, not Ted Cruz, will be heralded as the Trump slayer. Frankly, I fully expect a Cruz first place finish with a Rubio second place finish.
The bias for Rubio is intensifying as Republicans begin to gamble he is their best hope for stopping Trump and Cruz. That bias will generate far more stories than a Cruz victory.
To overcome this, Cruz is going to have to win big in Iowa. Cruz himself has already said that this may be the last place to stop Trump. Those words will be used against him if he comes in second to Trump and ignored if he comes in first. That is the reality the Cruz camp understands and it is one reason they have ads up all over Iowa attacking Rubio while the Cruz Super PACs continue relentlessly pounding Trump with Trump’s own words.
The best case scenario for Cruz is that he comes in first with Trump in second and Rubio is not close behind. That gives Cruz the title of Trump slayer while denying Rubio any more momentum.
But as I leave Iowa, everyone I’ve talked to, inside campaigns and outside campaigns, recognizes Rubio is on the rise despite the Jeb Super PAC’s best efforts.