Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE won a big score in Iowa Monday night with a strong third-place finish, making him a leading candidate in what is now a three-man race for the GOP nomination for president, alongside Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHow President Trump can restore sanity to America's labor laws Planned Parenthood head to Ivanka Trump: 'Stand for women’ Trump travel ban upheld by Virginia judge, still blocked in other courts MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzAIPAC must reach out to President Trump Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support Paul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes MORE.
In a column for The Hill last June titled “Marco Rubio’s moment,” I wrote that Jeb Bush was the most overrated candidate in the GOP field and Rubio was the most underrated and suggested that the time was coming when the eyes of the nation and Republican Party would turn to the senator from Florida.
In recent months I have been making the case that the mainstream media’s obsession with Trump — and more recently Cruz — is obscuring two of the most important truths in the presidential politics of 2016.
The first truth is that both Trump and Cruz would be highly vulnerable in a general election to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, creating the possibility of their leading Republicans to a landslide defeat — something that’s becoming increasingly obvious and alarming to GOP insiders, large donors and voters.
The second truth is that if we regard Trump and Cruz as Republican Plan A and Plan B, the natural course of events and nominating process math would inevitably lead to the creation of a GOP Plan C candidate — most likely Rubio — who would unite all Republicans who see disaster coming with Trump and Cruz and has a far stronger chance of being nominated than the pundits might believe.
In effect, Republicans are having a primary within a primary to determine who this Plan C candidate would be. The contestants are Rubio, Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. They are all highly qualified and credible potential nominees, though Bush has faded and will now be under excruciating pressure to drop out with most of his backers shifting to Rubio.
In the Iowa caucuses, Rubio won a landslide victory for the Plan C mantle, one that was so total it was virtually unanimous among GOP voters. This substantially lowers the credibility and capability of Kasich and Christie of becoming contenders for Plan C leadership, let alone the GOP nomination.
After his powerful third-place finish in Iowa, Rubio will receive a huge lift going into New Hampshire. Granite State voters will be presented with the Plan C choice of Rubio as a viable national contender, as compared to Kasich and Christie running essentially one-state campaigns that will have the practical effect of helping Trump and Cruz by siphoning votes away from Rubio.
New Hampshire voters are fiercely independent. Many will support Christie and Kasich, who are very able candidates and have invested much time in the state. Regardless, there is a fair chance that in New Hampshire the viability of Rubio, which includes his advantage of having national security experience in a dangerous world, the lift he received from Iowa, the GOP desire to stop both Trump and Cruz and the Florida senator’s powerful next-generation appeal, enables him to leave New Hampshire as the undisputed Plan C candidate.
Rubio will now be tested with scrutiny and challenges worthy of a serious contender for the presidency. He will be asked tough questions about every hot issue 24/7. How he responds in the coming days will determine whether his relative youth and next-generation appeal ultimately becomes a powerful asset or damaging liability when it comes to his ability to lead the GOP in a general election and serve as commander in chief in a world troubled by terror.
As the New Hampshire primary approaches, Marco Rubio now takes center stage in American political life.
Budowsky was an aide to former Sens. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Contributors blog and reached at email@example.com.