Marco Rubio seeks winning road map
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Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters Youth climate activists get Miami Beach to declare climate emergency MORE (Fla.) is in the top tier of candidates vying for the GOP’s presidential nomination, but his road map to victory can’t avoid some speed bumps.

Rubio is polling among the top four candidates in each of the first four states hosting contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — but victory is guaranteed nowhere. 

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He delivered an impressive debate performance at the most recent clash, on Tuesday night, and has taken on Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's impeachment jeopardy deepens MORE (Texas) with more gusto than before — but it is Cruz who has been rising more sharply in the polls. 

And for all Rubio’s considerable popularity with the Republican establishment, he faces competition from a trio of rivals for support from that segment of the party.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is on the rise in New Hampshire, where former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once left for dead politically, is also showing signs of life.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina are still hanging around as well, complicating Rubio’s hopes of coalescing support ahead of New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary.

“The realistic path for Rubio remains very murky,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who also writes for The Hill's Contributor's blog. “There are some very real questions about how he goes from where he is now to the nomination.”

New Hampshire seems like Rubio’s best prospect for an early victory given that its independent-minded GOP electorate is a better ideological fit for him than the more conservative Republicans of Iowa and South Carolina.

He stands in second place to businessman Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE in the Granite State, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. But Christie is now snapping at his heels — less than 2 points behind — and Trump is way ahead of them both.

“The task for him starts in New Hampshire. Obviously if he could win it, that’d be great,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist and a veteran of several past presidential campaigns. “If he can come in second, that would give him some momentum.”

But, Rollins added, “He has to win somewhere. He can’t go a long period of time without winning anywhere. And Iowa is not his place. I just don’t see him winning there.”

The polls back up Rollins’s point. In the most recent major poll in Iowa, from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm, Rubio draws 14 percent support. That is enough for third place but leaves him well behind Trump, at 28 percent, and Cruz, at 25 percent.

Skeptics worry that if he finishes a distant third in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, it could hurt Rubio in New Hampshire.

Rubio’s campaign says it is unconcerned with such speculation, and aides insist that the breadth of his appeal is unmatched by any other candidate.

The campaign’s communications director, Alex Conant, told The Hill via email, "Marco Rubio is uniquely able to compete in all of the first four states — and the next 46 after that. We have confidence that as voters in the early states get to know Marco and hear his message for a new American Century, he'll continue to rise in the polls and grow our team.”

Some unaligned observers share that opinion.

Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist who is not working for any of the 2016 presidential candidates, asserted that there is no need to get overly anxious about whether Rubio wins an early state. The name of the game is merely staying competitive for the long battle ahead, he insisted.

“With all due respect to the people of Iowa, they do not actually have a great track record of picking either nominees or presidents,” Vogel said. “I think the key for a long time has been, have you built an organization that can get you through those places credibly and out into the broader electoral landscape?”

Cruz looms large on that landscape, however. He and Rubio clashed repeatedly over topics including national security and military spending at last week’s debate. But their most heated tussles, on the debate stage and beyond it, have been over immigration.

Cruz has sought to highlight Rubio’s pivotal involvement in a 2013 immigration reform bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Rubio counters that Cruz is now exaggerating his own opposition.

The Texan proposed an amendment to that bill which, he argued at the time, would have made it more likely to pass, but Cruz now likens that move to a bluff in poker and says he never wanted the legislation to come into effect.

The fire over the issue has spread. Senators who worked on the bill with Rubio backed up his interpretation of Cruz’s actions in comments to The Hill, while other lawmakers opposed to any liberalization of the immigration laws, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), sprang to Cruz’s defense. 

The fight is far from over, but it is difficult to pick any obvious winner so far.

Referring to Rubio’s campaign team, Mackowiak said, “They have skillfully made Cruz play defense on immigration, which is an issue where Rubio should be on the defensive in a Republican primary. I am still somewhat perplexed as to how that happened: I don’t see how an amendment is more important than a bill.”

But Mackowiak also cautioned that, however well Rubio is playing his hand, immigration is an inherently risky topic for the Florida senator.

“I’m just not sure the GOP base questions Cruz’s commitment to stopping amnesty. They do question Rubio’s,” he said. “The terrain itself is not favorable to Rubio.”