THE BLOG
01/29/2016 04:25 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Marco Rubio -- The Next American President

If you think that Donald Trump has been dominating the Republican primary process then you are just not paying attention -- it is, and always has been, all about Marco Rubio.

It is now only a matter of days until the first presidential primary (February 1st) and sure, Donald Trump is still managing to capture most of the media attention. But then again he always would, regardless of his polling numbers. He is an anti-establishment candidate, and his brand of say-anything, do-anything politics is clearly eye-catching if not particularly intelligent. And he certainly can no longer be dismissed in the same way that he was after first announcing his candidacy.

Trump has been polling at almost 40% nationally and 30% in Iowa for months now, and if anything his support is only getting stronger the closer we get to the voting. Trump is a real candidate and his voters are real Republicans. It is just that a closer look at the race indicates something very different, and only one obvious winner - Marco Rubio.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is a former Commissioner for the City of West Miami, a former member of Florida's House of Representatives, and a one-term U.S. Senator. Fresh-faced and only 44 years of age, Rubio has never had much patience for traditional career hierarchies. Four years after first winning his Florida seat Rubio had already forced himself into the position of Majority Leader; and three years later he was Speaker of the House.

Rubio had achieved an entire career's worth of success - though be it at state level - in a frantic seven years. After slowly and deliberately building a reputation as a fiscal conservative - having presumably felt the impact of the Tea Party rolling through the Republican establishment - Rubio boldly challenged former Florida Governor, Charlie Crist, for the Senate seat vacated by Mel Martinez.

Starting as a relative unknown, and heavy underdog, Marco Rubio had the seat wrapped-up from the moment he opened his mouth. He was simply smarter, more articulate and a considerably better public performer than Republican politics had been used to up until that point. The only reasonable - and perhaps fairly obvious - forerunner to Rubio's highbrow and aesthetically pleasing politics has been Barack Obama. And this is no accidental analogy.

Following an impressive 2009 victory over Crist, Rubio began immediately positioning himself for greater things by joining every committee that would have him, including the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; and the much sought after Committee on Foreign Relations. And with only a couple of years of experience under his belt in national politics, Rubio was already being sounded-out by Mitt Romney as a possible running mate in 2012.

And in eerily familiar tones to Obama's 'Yes We Can' call for a more youthful, progressive politics, Rubio launched his campaign for President with a commencement speech that included: "We've reached a moment now, not just in my career, but the history of our country, where I believe that it needs a Republican Party that is new and vibrant, that understands the future, [and] has an agenda for that future".

Which brings us back to Mondays Primary in Iowa, and a Republican Party that is beginning to panic. The National Review - the magazine founded by the indomitable William F. Buckley, and considered to be the 'Conservative Bible' - in the past week just declared itself "Against Trump" and pulled together a police-line-up of 22 prominent conservatives to support their position.

As personal and vindictive as this might seem, it simply wasn't. The National Review were merely trying to save what they care about: "Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones". With a series of tight Senate elections coming-up in the next four years, they see the spectre of Donald Trump as both ideological suicide for conservatism, and as party suicide for the Republicans (We might now call this the Corbyn Effect in relation to the unalterable tail-spin that the socialist and terrorist sympathiser, Jeremy Corbyn, has forced upon the British Labour Party).

Trump was the easy and obvious target, but he is not alone. Ted Cruz as the other 'anti-establishment' candidate has been suffering from a sudden - and similarly fear driven - assault from people whom he once considered to be friends (many of which are his old Senate colleagues). On the other side of the ledger is an 'establishment' field consisting of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio himself.

Add to this a collection of increasingly desperate looking stragglers - of which Ben Carson and Rand Paul are the most prominent - and it is easy to see what the National Review are calling for. They want the establishment wing of the party to denounce personal ambition and start thinking about the long-term good of the party. Ideally this would be a trimming of the field so that Trump and Cruz are suddenly balanced-off against one - or two at most - sensible conservatives.

The theory is simple: at this point voter preferences would narrow-down, the choice between the two Republican factions would become unavoidably stark, and the circus would be over (the polling certainly seems to indicate that in a head-to-head vote the establishment camp would secure a comfortable victory). And sure this is likely to happen - but not as quickly as most conservatives would like.

As it stands, with 11 active candidates, Trump and Cruz are running as a clear first and second in both the national polls, and in the first two primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now this isn't really a problem and it certainly isn't a surprise. Both these states - though Iowa in particular - have a strong evangelical base and a recent history of voting for out-of-the box, and ultimately losing, candidates. In 2008 Iowa nominated Mike Huckabee while John McCain went on to claim the nomination, and in 2012 they opted for Rick Santorum over the eventual winner, Mitt Romney.

The particularly unnerving factor in this election cycle is the presence of a primary calendar that is so heavily front-loaded in favour of Trump and Cruz-type characters, that the establishment candidates are unlikely to get any real traction before the Florida primary on the 15th of March. That represents another month and a half of Trump-Cruz momentum, and potentially another month and a half of establishment vote sharing.

Hence the pressure to clean-house and coordinate an immediate Republican rear-guard action before too many votes have managed to slip away. Marco Rubio is not just the obvious, but also likely the only candidate that could achieve such an early consolidation behind his campaign. Rubio is both a clear third in all national polls (10%) and a clear third in Iowa (12%), with his next closest competitor being his one-time mentor Jeb Bush (5% both nationally and in Iowa).

However, beyond the polling numbers, Rubio has simply shown himself to be a different political animal to the rest of the Republican field. He has quietly dominated the majority of the official debates so far - despite Trump stealing most of the headlines - and has done so intellectually rather than through demagoguery. One of the most down-heartening moments in the race so far came when Donald Trump was asked to explain the 'nuclear triad'.

The Sarah Palin-esque fumbling and unease spread well beyond Trump, with the entire stage looking at their feet, trying to avoid having the question referred their way. Rubio - reminding voters that some politicians still read books - was the only person to raise his hand and take the question on (the triad refers to the three conventional nuclear payload delivery mechanisms of aerial bombing, missile silos, and submarines).

This has been the theme of the debate season so far. So naturally there has been some push-back. Bush went first: focussing on Rubio's history of missing Senate votes and clearly trying to use his one-time protégée as a kick-start for his own faltering campaign; Rubio was quick off the mark, "Over the last few weeks I listened to Jeb, he said you're modelling your campaign after John McCain... You know how many votes John McCain missed? Jeb, let me tell you, I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. The only reason you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position. Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you".

This was the beginning of the end, the sense of emasculation and visible unease that set over Bush in this moment has stuck with him ever since. Donald Trump, believing that he could succeed where Bush had failed, quickly relaunched this angle of questioning; yet he did so as part of a scatter-gun, and uniquely vitriolic, attack that included belittling Rubio's household finances and mocking his choice of haircut.

The only surprise here, was that for the first time in Trump's spiteful war on everything, it failed to stick, and Rubio walked away unscathed. Rand Paul's best effort was to accuse Rubio of being too kind to Syrian refugees; naturally Rubio rolled with the punch and doubled down on this point "We've always been a country that's willing to accept people who've been displaced, and I've been open to that".

Chris Christie, who has banked everything on increasingly unlikely victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, went after Rubio for pursuing sensible immigration reform from the Senate floor (the now infamous "Gang of Eight" bill in 2013). Once again, hardly the most compelling criticism. Yet as he laced his attack with a fizzing indignation, and as he snarled-out pejorative claims that Rubio has "never been in a tough race in his life" and is trying "to slime his way to the White House", Christie has simply confirmed the widely held impression from his time as New Jersey Governor - and permanent anchor on his current campaign - that he is an overaggressive and deeply unpleasant human being; effectively, a bully.

When Ted Cruz decided to follow-up on Christie's immigration related line of attack, Marco Rubio laid a marker down for the rest of the field: "this is an interesting point when you talk about immigration. Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say that you're against it. You used to support a 500% increase in the number of guest workers, now you say that you're against it. You used to support legalizing people that were here illegally. Now, you say you're against it. You used to say that you were in favour of birthright citizenship. Now, you say that you are against it... That is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation."

Yet, more telling than his performances against the other Republican's, is the attention that he is getting from Hillary Clinton. As the only viable Democratic candidate, the behaviour of her campaign operates as a barometer for the strengths and weaknesses within the Republican field. So the fact that she is focussing the majority of her attack-ads on Rubio speaks volumes about who she believes will be the nominee and her eventual challenger. Yet even here - and strangely reminiscent of her Republican adversaries - Hillary's attacks have failed to develop any real force; taking on a blunted feel, her most recent attempt asks the generic cliché, "What Is Marco Rubio Hiding?"

This is the state of the field that Marco Rubio has before him. So it is little wonder that he has so far seemed immune from the sort of attacks that have tended to rattle the other candidates. His only weakness - as discussed by serious commentators - is his lack of a 'ground-game'. What this means is that Rubio has not yet developed the sort of street-level person-to-person campaign presence that is now considered important - particularly in evangelical constituencies such as Iowa.

However, this is less indictable than it might seem. Rather than being asleep behind the wheel, Rubio's team are openly talking about a "different kind of campaign" that heavily invests in digital outreach and - perhaps more interestingly - focusses on a nation-wide strategy. For argument sake, let's say he has misjudged this one badly. Well that means despite the self-sabotage he has still managed to considerably out-perform the rest of the establishment in almost every reputable opinion poll. If the opposite is true, then Rubio's campaign is only just warming-up.

Either way, if the worst crime that can be pinned on Rubio is that he has taken a moderate position on immigration and has missed some Senate votes, then the Party might as well crown him their nominee right now. He is, after all, the most palatable conservative of the four major establishment candidates (often expressing the sort of evangelical opinions that would make liberal-leaning voters cringe)

But more importantly, the traditional Republican machinery has started to creak into life - the children have had their fun, and the adults are now trying to re-establish some order. This goes further than the National Review; there has been a growing crescendo of complaints from the other candidates that Rubio has been receiving preferential treatment - though be it subconscious - from the various debate moderators who they claim have been inappropriately referring to Rubio as if he is already the nominee.

If Rubio achieves an expected third place finish in Iowa then this sort of pressure will become increasingly overt. And once this happens how much longer will an underperforming Bush, a tainted Christy and a non-entity Kasich be able to justify remaining in the race? It seems almost inevitable that the Republican establishment - scared by the spectre of a Trump or Cruz nomination - will soon be publically backing Marco Rubio.

And Rubio is unlikely to look back from here. He will almost certainly out-perform Hillary Clinton in the same way that he has out-performed the Republican field so far; he will likely energise younger voters reminiscent of Barack Obama in 2008; he will steal a large chunk of the much sought-after Latino vote from its traditional Democratic moorings; he will make the Republican Party palatable for single-issue, immigration voters; and he will nullify Hillary Clinton's best claim to authority (her foreign policy credentials). In short, Marco Rubio will become the next President of the United States of America.