Marco Rubio is going to have a moment in tonight's debate. You can just feel it. He and his cheerleaders have been waiting for the Rubio moment, that instant when he begins consolidating non-Trump support in the Republican Party and makes his dashing rise to the top of the race. If you average the polls, he's currently third nationally among Republicans at 11.3 percent. He's polling third in Iowa at 13 percent. And he's just barely ahead of Jon Kasich for second in New Hampshire at 13.2 percent. With one of his chief antagonists, Rand Paul, excluded from the next debate, it's finally his time. The Rubio moment is here.
Or maybe it's here again? No one is quite sure.
Two months ago, The Indy Star declared, "The Rubio moment has arrived." At that time he was polling third in Iowa, with 12.8 percent and third in New Hampshire at 10.3 percent. The Star seemed to be answering The Washington Post's question from two weeks earlier, "Has the Rubio moment arrived?" (Iowa: 10.2 percent; N.H.: 8.3 percent) and to confirm the Wall Street Journal's contention that Rubio was moving to "seize the moment." And yet, three weeks before that, Real Clear Politics said that Rubio's "moment had arrived" (Iowa: 7.7 percent; N.H.: 7 percent) And two weeks before that, Politico noticed that Marco Rubio was already having "another moment," one reminiscent of the moment when he was second in the national polls, in May 2015.
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Since the press last declared his latest moment, Rubio is up 0.2 percent in Iowa and 2.9 percent in New Hampshire and down 0.5 percent nationally. In that same time Ted Cruz is up 14.4 percent in Iowa and 9.9 percent nationally. As of Jan. 10, the supposedly-moribund Bush campaign has gained as much support in New Hampshire as Rubio even though the nation has been enduring two months of Rubio moments. Oh, and we haven't even dealt with Trump yet.
Rubio has the sympathetic coverage and interest of the Beltway media. He has basked in open cheering from influential conservative outlets like National Review Online and The Weekly Standard. He's collecting endorsements from conservative congressmen. He and his allies have spent an enormous amount of money — second only to pro-Jeb Bush groups — trying to blunt the rise of Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz. And yet every poll for months in the first two nominating contents has him between 10 and 14 percent. He's had 15 moments in the media over the past three months. And 15 weeks of same in the polls.
Maybe we should all hold off on declaring the coming good fortune for Marco Rubio unless and until the RNC rewrites the rules to award the nomination to the candidate who thrashes wildly while remaining in third place the longest.
And definitely don't pay attention to the fact that Marco Rubio's fans, who had spent many golden Rubio-moments exulting in their man's triumph over his former mentor, are now whining to the press about the funny ads coming from Right to Rise, a Jeb Bush-aligned Super PAC.
Everyone knows! Except the 86 to 90 percent of Republican primary voters who routinely don't name him as their top choice. The whole premise of Rubio's candidacy is that his fresh face and new way of thinking are guaranteed to beat stale legacy candidates like Hillary Clinton. And yet, he needs to be protected from Bush.
Of course, it's not all bad news for Rubio. He still has decently high favorability ratings. He has a high ceiling. Most Republicans, when polled, can imagine supporting him. I still think he's a not a bad bet, if you're a chancer.
But Rubio has three serious problems.
The first is immigration reform. Rubio's treasured attempt at a domestic legislative accomplishment was the Chuck Schumer-supported Gang of Eight bill. The bill would have massively increased legal immigration levels and promised vainly to maybe stop 20 percent or so of illegal immigration. Republicans overwhelmingly hate it.
The second problem for Rubio is that he can come across as a little bit of a lightweight. He communicates hope and optimism in a time when Republicans think the nation needs a gritty reboot.
The third problem is that other candidates, particularly Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, seemed to have identified Rubio's first two problems.
None of these problems are solvable. Even on seeming like a lightweight, Rubio will struggle, mostly because the two issues where he has tried to be serious in his career are immigration reform and foreign policy. We know the problems on immigration. But on foreign policy, Rubio is more faithful to George W. Bush's unpopular policies in the Middle East than George, much less Jeb, ever was.
I would not advise Rubio to try to take advantage of Rand Paul's absence at Thursday's debate by saying, "I may not have been swift enough to realize I was getting rolled by Chuck Schumer, but here's my plan to simultaneously defeat three sides of the Syrian civil war, and Russia too."
Any moment now!
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