DES MOINES, Iowa — For the Rubio campaign, Marcomentum is more than just a hashtag.
The Florida senator and his campaign are oozing confidence in Iowa as they spend the final weekend before caucus night criss-crossing this state speaking with voters, shaking hands and, yes, kissing babies.
Buoyed by solid poll numbers and a clutch final debate performance here on Thursday, plus a rough week for top opponent Sen. Ted Cruz, the Rubio campaign feels like it is exactly where it wants to be headed into Monday night.
“We have a good bit of wind at our backs and we’re looking forward to finishing strong here,” Todd Harris, a senior adviser to Rubio, said in Dubuque on Friday night.
But in the same breath, the campaign is quick to downplay expectations, boasting of a strong third-place finish as a victory.
Throughout the 2016 presidential race, Rubio’s camp has sought to maintain an under-the-radar push, timing its move into front-runner status with the final leg of the campaign. That could mean not winning a single early state but instead emerging as the clear alternative to front-runners Donald Trump and Cruz.
“We are ever-mindful of the fact that we are competing with the greatest showman on earth on one side and the greatest ground game in Iowa political history on the other,” Harris said. “Success for us is going to be to exceed expectations. … We think that means a strong third-place finish.”
While polls consistently show Rubio in a distant third place to Cruz and Trump, the numbers are good for his campaign. Not only are they trending slightly upward, but more importantly, he is the only other candidate within striking distance of the two front-runners as other establishment candidates fade.
The hope is that Rubio can ride that message of being the clear viable alternative to the firebrand front-runners into New Hampshire, where moderate GOP voters are split between three to four strong establishment choices.
One of Rubio’s major donors, billionaire Republican businessman Frank VanderSloot, said that he doesn’t feel Rubio needs to win any of the early states to go on to win the nomination.
“He just has to have a good showing against the other folks,” VanderSloot said. “I believe he has to come in third in several of them. … Then you’re going to see the coalescing around him.”
VanderSloot added that many in his donor network have more money to give but are holding off until an alternative to Trump and Cruz emerge.
The campaign is also saturating the airwaves in Iowa.
In addition to standard advertising by both the campaign and supportive super PAC, Team Marco announced Saturday it would air a 30-minute TV special featuring Rubio in town hall settings in every market in Iowa this weekend. The special will also include social media interaction and a call-in line to answer caucus questions.
The candidate is also showing off his confidence. He is happily spinning news that Cruz is diverting advertising money to Rubio attack ads, away from Trump, into a sign of force.
“When a candidate’s being attacked, obviously someone’s worried about you, so obviously Senator Cruz is worried about my candidacy,” Rubio told reporters in Muscatine, Iowa, on Friday.
The campaign sent out a fundraising email on Saturday that highlighted the ads.
Voters are also responding to Rubio’s message. Republican public opinion guru Frank Luntz said Rubio won his focus group during Thursday’s debate, besting Cruz without Trump — who skipped the event — on the stage.
“It’s been Ted up until last night, and then I thought Marco’s performance last night was much better,” said Michael Brewer, a Lutheran chaplain from Clinton, Iowa, at a Rubio town hall on Friday. “I think Ted came across kind of petty.”
His wife, Indra, a businesswoman, said she also changed her mind to supporting Rubio after Thursday’s debate.
“I think Ted intended to be humorous, it failed and it as Marco was saying, we can’t afford to lose this election,” she said.
In Muscatine that morning, Wilton dentist Keith Stanley said he had walked into the town hall favoring Trump, but was leaving so impressed by Rubio that he might switch his vote.
“I think it’s his personality in public, maybe not the brashness that Donald shows,” Stanley said. “Not that I’m afraid of him, but I just think you can get more done sometimes when you’re not overpowering the person next to you with insults. He seems to be more like he could unite both sides of the party.”