In Iowa, why not Rubio?

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We now know the loser of Fox News Channel's Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa: Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump claims he was endorsed 'conceptually' by military McMullin scraps Virginia event to focus on Western states Climate’s on the ballot like never before MORE, beaten by Fox News Channel's star host, Megyn Kelly.

With hours to go before the non-secret-ballot Iowa caucuses, the 2016 Republican presidential field has basically narrowed down to three men: polling leader Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race MORE and Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Obama seeks down-ballot gains after being midterm loser Chamber endorses bill to block proposed estate tax rules MORE. When the GOP debate occurs, we will not see a take-no-prisoners battle between Trump and Cruz in living color. Trump has chickened out and says he won't show up in Des Moines, mainly because Fox News won't remove Kelly as moderator.

Kelly had the effrontery to ask Trump a tough question in the first debate last August about how Trump expects to do well with women when he calls some "pigs" and questions their looks.

No face-to-face war between Trump and Cruz will occur in these last few days before Iowa expresses its choice Monday night. Benefiting the most from the viciousness that Trump and Cruz have shown in recent days is the man who will walk away from the debate head high: Rubio. His debate skills have won, or almost won, every debate so far in the campaign. His quality campaigning has risen far above that of Trump and Cruz. Rubio is affable and likable. Few would be embarrassed by his being president, as many are with the idea of President Trump.

Running on the Fox News Channel, for example, is a positive advertisement for Rubio by the sister of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, an agent who died on the border. He was killed, we think, by a weapon the Obama administration gifted the Mexican drug cartels. The ad is devastating to wannabe GOP nominees not named Rubio because it raises him above the fray and lays out an issue for November.

The best recommendation for Rubio's candidacy is that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have spent over $20 million on anti-Rubio television ads. Both criticize Rubio's 2013 immigration reform efforts even as they both supported the legalization of millions here illegally. Cruz specifically offered an amendment to the 2013 bill that would have legalized 11 million people.

Adding to his better television advertising, when compared to Trump and Cruz, is one for Rubio that quotes prominent Democrats and how much they fear him in the general election match up.

Now comes Iowa's two most important newspapers, The Des Moines Register and the Sioux City Journal, with their endorsements of Rubio. Conservative critics will note that the Register usually endorses the "establishment" candidate, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and that McCain and Romney both lost the caucuses. Few expect Rubio to win over Trump and Cruz in Iowa, but a better-than-expected showing would validate the thinking of many Republicans that Rubio is the one to take on and defeat Hillary Clinton or any Democrat in November.

In the general election, for example, the very issue that haunts Rubio in the primary — his work on comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate with 68 bipartisan votes — will add to his vote. Even now, he would benefit by declaring that contrary to his opponents, he actually tried to do something real to solve the problem. He should also point out that only former House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) political cowardice kept that reform from becoming law. It would have passed if Boehner had allowed a vote. It would have passed easily, with or without amendments.

Nonetheless — and he should use this — his opponents did little or nothing to tackle and solve the illegal migrant problem. Showing up Trump, Rubio actually put together a "deal" to solve the problem; there is nothing like that from Trump. Rubio's opponents allowed the problem to grow. Rubio tried to do something; they did nothing. Nothing happened. There are still 11 million illegally present people in the United States.

Will the debate without Trump emotionally and/or politically affect a multimillion person audience that might otherwise be figuratively covered by the blood of Trump and Cruz? It should; Trump's petulance reveals much about him. Too bad for him. Rubio will dominate the debate, taking many Iowans with him. He would have if Trump had shown up anyway.

If that happens, one can see how the independents of New Hampshire, who have decided more than one Republican primary contest, take notice and cast their votes for Rubio one week after Iowa.

Rubio's Iowa and New Hampshire votes look to be substantial enough to run a solid third, not far behind Cruz. Can Rubio win the Republican nomination with solid votes in Iowa and New Hampshire? He can if the candidates who leave Iowa and New Hampshire with less votes than Rubio quit the race and endorse him. None of them have any reason to support Trump or Cruz. If we and they want to beat Clinton, Rubio is the man.

Twenty million dollars in attacks thrown at Rubio is a plus, not a minus. Ask those losing to him; ask those afraid of him; ask the candidate from Goldman-Sachs: Hillary Clinton.

Contreras formerly wrote for the New American News Service of The New York Times Syndicate.