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Most have deemed Carly Fiorina the winner of last week's CNN-sponsored Republican debate, but the greatest beneficiary is likely to be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The first national polling following the debate shows a small but noticeable surge for Rubio, pushing him slightly ahead of fellow Floridian Jeb Bush. Two things combine to Rubio's advantage. While no master of backslapping, Rubio is the smoothest communicator running for president in 2016 in either party, as shown in the debates to date. Second, with the departures of Scott Walker and Rick Perry, Rubio is the last remaining candidate with some legitimate linkages to various sectors in the deeply factionalized party: the GOP establishment, the tea party movement and the Christian right. To date, the well-liked Rubio has been the most common second choice among GOP primary voters; it is now probable that Rubio — the prospective GOP nominee Democrats fear most in a general election — will become more of those voters' first pick.
The timing of Rubio's small surge could not be better. First, the Republican establishment is getting increasingly agitated about the reality that a steady majority of Republican primary voters prefers a candidate who has never before held political office (Fiorina, Donald Trump or Ben Carson) or who has spent the entirety of his time on the national political stage attacking his party's leaders in Congress (Sen. Ted Cruz). As such, there is a growing sense that the establishment must coalesce behind a candidate to have any shot at maintaining control of the party. Indeed, in his short speech announcing his departure from the race on Monday (perhaps the only speech in which a candidate has described himself as a "leader" for leaving a race prematurely), Walker suggested just that: "I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same, so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front runner," who is Trump. With Jeb Bush faltering and Ohio's John Kasich seen as too moderate, Rubio seems best positioned to fit that bill.
Second, while a disastrous candidate in many respects, Walker does have two valuable political resources now available to others: his super PAC support that was on track to raise $40 million by the end of the calendar year and his organizational support in Iowa. Because of their ideological overlap, the most natural home for Walker's super PAC supporters may well be Rubio. Rubio's own campaign has had good fundraising success (as of July 31, he had the most cash on hand in the GOP race), but his super PAC support was less impressive. As a New York Times article following Walker's decision to leave the race suggested, modern nomination politics — at least on the GOP side — requires both. In Iowa, Rubio is in mid-single digits and has been slow to put together an organization in a state where organization means everything (Arkansan Clint Reed took over as Rubio's Iowa state director this week); he badly needs respected county organizers across the state's 99 counties if he's to pop to the top of the field in Iowa. If Rubio is able to pull in the bulk of Walker's super PAC support and Iowa organization, Walker's demise will significantly aid Rubio's efforts.
Despite the noticeable winds blowing in his direction at the moment, these key challenges remain for Rubio:
• While Rubio has national strength, he is markedly weaker in the early contests. If Iowa is a challenge, things are even worse for him in New Hampshire where the latest Real Clear Politics aggregation of polls places him no higher than eighth.
• Although running a surprisingly weak race, Jeb Bush's tremendous support among super PAC funders (Bush's super PAC "Right to Rise" has raised well over $100 million, dwarfing all other candidates' efforts) creates a major barrier to the coalescing of establishment support behind any candidate not named Bush, particularly one from Florida from which much of that money comes.
• Attention will now turn increasingly to Rubio's background and record. Most problematic is his use of a state GOP credit card for personal expenses while speaker of the House in Florida, an action Rubio admitted was a "mistake." Indeed, some believe that Rubio's financial past was so troubling that it pushed the Romney campaign away from giving him a complete vetting for a vice presidential nomination in 2012. Any evidence of a use of political position for personal benefit will agitate Republican voters most drawn to outside candidates.
• Most problematic for Rubio, a majority of the 2016 primary electorate has consistently said that it wants a true outsider candidate. That is an unmistakable problem for Rubio, who has spent the bulk of his adult life in politics. Personal likability will only get a candidate so far in a primary electorate fundamentally angered at their government and all involved in it.
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