Rubio early-state strategy comes with potential risks

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Marco RubioMarco RubioWar over the estate tax returns Clinton’s strategy: Get under Trump’s skin Rubio, Heck help out at car crash scene MORE’s campaign appears to be coalescing around a unique and potentially risky strategy to catch fire in the GOP presidential primary, one that isn’t predicated on success in either Iowa and New Hampshire.  

The strategy, disclosed by National Review earlier this week after conversations with multiple Rubio aides, has earned the nickname of the “3-2-1” strategy—third place in Iowa, second place in New Hampshire and first place in South Carolina. 

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It’s a strategy borne out of the Florida senator’s reality, experts say. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are in a league of their own in Iowa, and Trump holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire, ahead of Rubio and a crowd of four other candidatessupport within most polls’ margins of error.  

It’s an unconventional path in an unconventional cycle, with potential risks and rewards. 

“It can work because it’s the most realistic path,” GOP strategist and former RNC aide Doug Heye told The Hill, noting that Rubio is in much better shape at the polls than those outside of Trump and Cruz.  

“If you are Kasich and Christie you base everything on New Hampshire, without New Hampshire, there is no SEC primary…what Rubio has been able to do with the campaign thus far allows him that [flexibility].” 

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist, said that while he views the path as “plausible,” the biggest problem is that it’s a strategy that builds on itself. 

“It’s kind of like building a house—Iowa is the foundation, New Hampshire is the walls, and South Carolina is the roof,” he said. “But you can’t build a roof without the foundation or walls.” 

Rubio is currently polling in third in Iowa, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polling, 3 points ahead of Ben Carson and a 7 points ahead of Jeb Bush. In New Hampshire, Rubio is smack-dab in the middle of the mush of the five candidates leagues behind Trump—3 points behind second-place John Kasich, and 2 points ahead of Jeb Bush.  

And Rubio stands in fourth place in South Carolina, 24 points behind Trump and 2 points behind Bush in January’s Augusta Chronicle poll.  

That means he’ll need to hold strong in Iowa, jump two spots in New Hampshire and leapfrog both Trump and Cruz in South Carolina to achieve the 3-2-1 strategy.

It could be difficult to emerge as the top establishment pick in New Hampshire. Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have gone all-in in the state, with the first two logging more than 150 events in the state according to New England Cable Network, while Bush is nearing 100. That's well ahead of Rubio's 63 events. Plus, Cruz is still polling well in the mix, placing slightly ahead of Rubio in the RealClearPolitics average.

“The question is: does New Hampshire end up being a forcing mechanism?” Mackowiak said. 

“Let’s say Rubio finishes second at 18 percent in New Hampshire. What if Jeb or Christie finishes third with 16 percent? Are they really going to be forced out of the race if the difference between second and third is really small?”  

The Rubio campaign did not follow up to requests to detail its early-state strategy. But allies believe his national appeal and conservative spending will buoy him even without wins in the first two states, and leave him in position to snatch up the establishment support if Kasich, Bush, and Christie drop after New Hampshire. 

“If I had to label the strategy, it would be the ‘nomination through attrition,’” Peter M. Brown, a top Rubio donor, told The Hill, before noting that it’s a “pretty good strategy.”

In Brown’s mind, Rubio will “still have the resources to go as far as he wants” even if he falters in the early rounds, which gives him viability that other candidates who are primarily relying on one state don’t have.  

But Brown admits the strategy could falter if Iowa and New Hampshire don’t sufficiently winnow the field, particularly of candidates competing with Rubio for votes.  

“The dynamics of what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire for the other 10 candidates outside the top three, the shakeout of Iowa and New Hampshire, are as important as any ad you can possibly run in South Carolina,” Brown said.  

“There has to be some filtering—what do the candidates look like, who is in and who is out. It’s a struggle if no one ever drops out of the race, that’s just math.”  

The winnowing is extremely important for the South Carolina strategy to come to fruition, as the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire will come roaring into the state with some momentum.

There’s some recent precedent for a candidate coming out of nowhere to win South Carolina—Newt Gingrich in 2012—but that’s largely seen as a fluke, thanks to his commanding debate performance in the state just before the primary, as well as the controversy over the Iowa caucus results stunting momentum out of that state. That year, Mitt Romney was declared the winner immediately after the caucus, but a recount weeks later proved that Santorum actually won the contest. 

But Rubio also faces another potential stumbling block in the Palmetto State: his old rival, Jeb Bush. Rubio has usurped Bush as Florida’s favorite son, at least in the national polls and perception. But Bush’s team has touted a strong organization in South Carolina, where the Bush name still holds weight, as well as the endorsement of the state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham.   

“Polling that I have seen, with a large part of the electorate in South Carolina who picked a candidate in polling, close to half will tell you that they are not firm, that they might well change their mind,” Richard Quinn, a longtime Graham campaign aide, said.  

“I think it’s extremely volatile and a lot is going to depend on New Hampshire and Iowa.” 

Super-PACs supporting Rubio have aired a significant amount of ads in South Carolina, Quinn said. But even with the support of key surrogate Trey Gowdy, the popular South Carolina Congressman and head of the House Benghazi Committee, Quinn believes Bush will remain a formidable ally in the state as long as he sticks around.  

“I’ve been doing polling since 1980 and even recently I checked not just Jeb Bush’s numbers in the state, but his brother’s. George W. Bush is not a negative in South Carolina,” he said.  

“I’m just a South Carolina boy, but the Bush family is very popular here and if the base begins to think that Jeb has a chance here, they would quickly move to his column.”