Fearing Trump and Cruz, Republicans look to Rubio

The GOP establishment is beginning to coalesce around Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE’s presidential bid amid fears that a victory by Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE or Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE would sink the party in November.

Weeks before the first round of primary voting, the Florida senator’s campaign has rolled out a series of high-profile congressional endorsements, including from House ­Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzDem demands documents from TSA after scathing security report Chaffetz replacement sworn in as House member Democrats expand House map after election victories MORE (R-Utah) on Wednesday.

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Rubio is now just a handful of congressional endorsements behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the onetime GOP front-runner and establishment pick.

The 44-year-old Cuban-American senator has long been seen by Republicans as the party’s best hope against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE. Many political observers believe Rubio, who has more than held his own on the debate stage, would be a solid contrast to Clinton, the top pick to win the Democratic nomination.

Polls bear that out. The RealClearPolitics average in head-to-head surveys shows Rubio with a 1.3 percent lead over Clinton, while she is tied with Texas Sen. Cruz and holds a 4.8-point lead on business mogul Trump.

Yet Rubio’s candidacy hasn’t caught fire.

He’s well behind both Trump and Cruz in national polls, and just ahead of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose candidacy is flailing.

Worse, Rubio doesn’t appear to be a favorite in a single early-voting state.

He trails Cruz and Trump badly in Iowa and is well behind Trump in New Hampshire. He’s also struggling against Trump and Cruz in South Carolina.

Rubio also hasn’t had a campaign-defining moment yet that has significantly elevated his standing.

And on Wednesday, Chaffetz’s endorsement of the senator was overshadowed by a social media furor over his footwear: stylish black boots with a high heel.

Several of Rubio’s rivals mocked the boots, with Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE (R-Ky.) appearing in Whoopi Goldberg’s dressing room ahead of an appearance on “The View.”

“We’ve seen Rubio has those cute new boots, and I don’t want to be outdone,” Paul said in a video posted to Twitter.

Team Rubio is expressing confidence about his standing in the race.

“According to every metric we care about on the ground in the early states, we are definitely making progress towards doing very well in February,” spokesman Alex Conant said in an interview.

He called crowd sizes at events over the past week the “biggest of the entire campaign.”

“When Marco entered this race in April, the establishment was telling him to wait his turn and to run for reelection,” Conant said. “Other candidates continue to raise more money than us, but I don’t think there’s any question that Marco has gained significant momentum over the past few weeks.”

A new survey released Wednesday by Public Policy Polling did find Rubio in second place in New Hampshire and 4 points ahead of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been gaining ground in the state. 

Still, with 15 percent support, Rubio was well behind Trump’s 29 percent.

Rubio’s congressional endorsements are not likely to be game-changers, but they do suggest growing support for the Floridian to be his party’s standard-bearer.

Chaffetz, House Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyTop intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father Overnight Cybersecurity: Panel pushes agencies on dropping Kaspersky software | NC county won't pay ransom to hackers | Lawmakers sound alarm over ISIS 'cyber caliphate' Flynn told associate Russia sanctions would be ‘ripped up’ early in Trump presidency MORE (R-S.C.), former Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) are acting as surrogates, often appearing on cable television to speak on his behalf.

Conant noted Gowdy and Love aren’t seen by conservatives as establishment politicians either, which he said underscores Rubio’s broad coalition of support.

He added that the campaign will announce more congressional endorsements in the “coming weeks.”

One House Republican who spoke to The Hill on background said he’s been encouraged by his colleagues’ support of Rubio. 

“I recognize the fact that if Rubio is our nominee, we’ve got a chance to really grow our vote share of Republicans,” said a GOP lawmaker who will not make a formal endorsement in the primary. “If Trump is our nominee, it will shrink the number. So I think it’s good for our party if Rubio is the nominee.

“When you have conservatives like Chaffetz and Gowdy get on board with Rubio, it tells me this internal thought process we’re having ... we’re coming to the right conclusion that we need the most conservative, electable candidate.”

The endorsements could also help Rubio with the GOP’s donor class, says Republican strategist and former senior congressional aide Ron Bonjean.

“If elected officials and members of Congress are starting to flood towards Rubio, that’s a sign for donors of where they might want to put their dollars,” he said. “Having these members out there is a signal to other [members] that this is where the trend is heading.”

Gowdy has already hit the trail to buttress concerns from the base over Rubio’s backing of a 2013 Senate bill reforming the nation’s immigration laws. The legislation remains a problem for Rubio because it’s made some conservatives view him with suspicion — something that has been fanned by Cruz.

“If I were not convinced that Marco Rubio was the person to ensure border security, interior security and employment security, I wouldn’t be wasting your time,” Gowdy said last week.

Scott Wong contributed.