With 60 days to go until the Iowa caucuses, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and are attempting to capitalize on recent momentum in a GOP field long dominated by this year’s two outsider candidates.
“There’s so much uncertainty in the race. But the fact remains that Donald Trump is strong,” said New Hampshire Republican Mike Dennehy, an early adviser to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign who is now unaffiliated.
That makes it hard to tell whether support for Rubio and Cruz marks a shift in the race or whether it’s a temporary bump — a reflection of their strong debate performances earlier this fall.
“He’s the flavor of the month,” New Hampshire-based GOP consultant David Carney said of Rubio, dismissing the idea that the Florida senator has gained traction in the state.
“He does well in debates,” Carney acknowledged, but he said he hasn’t seen Rubio spend enough time in New Hampshire to be any kind of consensus candidate.
Dennehy agreed. “There have been so many candidates who have hit that threshold of 10 or 11 percent. It’s just not that meaningful,” he said.
Other Republicans see a shift coming.
“I think we’re actually at a point where voters are starting to make more informed decisions on who they think should be our nominee,” Republican consultant Jason Roe said.
Cruz has made a concerted effort to play in Iowa, and Roe thinks he’s started to lock up support among the “three legs of the conservative stool”: social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and defense hawks.
Former Iowa Rep. Tom Latham agreed, pointing out Cruz’s popularity among evangelicals.
“I think with maybe some of the other leaders falling out, he was in place to get some of their support,” Latham said.
The former congressman suggested that Cruz’s time spent in the state may be paying off for him now, but he questioned whether any candidate has invested as much time there as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did during the last campaign.
“Iowa is hands-on. You gotta be there to meet people,” Latham said. “Because [the voters] expect to have not only group conversations, but individual conversations with the candidates,” he added.
Meanwhile, Rubio, as his growing list of congressional endorsements would suggest, is locking up more support from mainstream conservatives.
It’s not clear, however, how much the backing of his fellow lawmakers will help him.
“Congressional endorsements are like chicken pox, but good to have them so you don’t get shingles down the road,” New Hampshire’s Carney said.
Roe agreed that voters don’t care much about endorsements. But they do have some significance with donors.
“This is the symbolic Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on who the establishment thinks is the best candidate,” Roe said. “As [Jeb] Bush stumbles, this reassures those donors that they’re going to a safe place.”
In New Hampshire, though, there is one establishment endorsement that Republicans say carries weight, and Rubio didn’t get it.
The New Hampshire Union Leader gave an early endorsement to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over the weekend, which many Republicans felt was a reflection of the time he’s invested in the state.
“You can’t turn around without [seeing] Chris Christie out mowing someone’s lawn,” Carney said of the New Jersey governor, who’s known for how much time he’s spent in the state.
Despite the highs and lows yet to come for all campaigns, Roe predicts Rubio and Cruz will remain near the front of the pack, and he expects their respective candidacies to fuel at an intraparty debate beyond just the outsider-versus-insider dichotomy that has characterized so much of this year’s campaign.
“I think it then becomes an internal debate for the Republican Party, and by that I mean, its voters, as to what’s more important: fidelity to conservatism above all else, or a kind of emotional and compelling appeal that can transcend party.”
That distinction, Roe said, is more about style than conservatism. “It’s not that [Rubio’s] less conservative than Cruz,” he said, it’s just that Cruz has made “fidelity to conservatism” his central message.
Those stylistic differences appear more salient when observers hold up Rubio as the “youthful,” change-oriented candidate, even though, on paper, the two men share much in common. In their first terms in the Senate, they are both 44 years old and of Cuban descent.
“From what I hear,” Dennehy said of Rubio’s New Hampshire supporters, “they like his persona. They like his youthful energy.”
“I don’t know whether it’s appearance or enthusiasm — the way he speaks,” Latham said of Rubio’s apparent dynamism. “He’s got the opportunity to do very well” in Iowa, too, Latham said, “but he’s going to have to spend more time there.”
By Tuesday, Rubio had flown south, stopping in Alabama and South Carolina — both part of the southern turf the Cruz campaign has dubbed “Cruz Country.” Cruz is banking on his support with evangelicals.
As for New Hampshire and Iowa, though, Republicans agree that both Rubio and Cruz are going to need to devote more time to retail politics there and that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the nomination from their respective second-place standings in the first two nominating states.
“Historically we’re in new territory,” Dennehy said.
Typically, at this point the in race, “we’d have more defined candidates,” Carney agreed. “Clearly, people are still shopping.”