By Jonathan Easley - 01-30-16 06:00 AM EST
Buzz is growing on the ground in Iowa around Marco Rubio, who many political watchers believe is set for a stronger-than-expected showing at Monday’s caucuses.
In interviews with The Hill, Iowa Republicans and independent analysts in the state say Rubio is primed to break free from the second tier of contenders and finally emerge as the candidate to save the establishment from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who are battling for the lead in Iowa.
“He easily has the greatest upside,” said Doug Gross, who served as Iowa finance chairman for the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
“Mainstream Republicans are not comfortable with Trump or Cruz, and the more I hear from them, the more they say they’ve decided on Rubio. He has the greatest potential and it’s driven by pragmatism, a desire to win, and angst with the two front-runners.”
To be sure, that assumes more strength for Rubio than is currently reflected in the polls.
According to the RealClearPolitics average, the race for Iowa is a two-man contest with Trump the front-runner at 31 percent, and Cruz hanging on at 25 percent. Rubio is a distant third place at 14 percent.
However, Iowa is known for producing late-surging candidates.
In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) was polling in sixth place one week before the caucuses and subsequently shocked political observers by coming out of nowhere to win.
According to a Monmouth University survey released this week, not even half of all likely caucus-goers have finally settled on their candidate, leaving plenty of room for voters to swing behind an upstart.
The sense in Iowa is that in 2016, Rubio is likeliest to outperform in a way that has a meaningful impact on the race.
Several recent polls have picked up on early signs of momentum.
Rubio sits 4 points higher in the RCP average than he did only one week ago. The Florida Republican clocked in at 18 percent in a NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll released this week, his best showing in any survey of Iowa to date.
That poll has Rubio only 7 points behind Cruz, who is down from the highs he reached in early January.
No one interviewed by The Hill is predicting that Rubio will catch Trump on Election Day, and most still believe that Cruz will finish ahead of him.
However, if a late surge by Rubio can propel him close to Trump and Cruz into that first tier of candidates, some believe it could enough to cement his standing in the minds of mainstream Republicans that he’s the best hope to take on the insurgents.
“In the last seven days or so, I’ve seen movement towards Rubio and away from Cruz among conservatives that are not comfortable yet with the idea of Trump,” said Jamie Johnson, a long-time GOP operative in the state who worked on Rick Perry’s campaign this cycle.
Johnson predicted a victory for Trump in Iowa, who he believes will surpass the 30 percent threshold. But he said he expects Cruz and Rubio will run neck-and-neck past the 20 percent mark.
“I think he’s going to surge enough to worry Ted Cruz’s supporters,” Johnson said. “Conservatives that are worried about Trump getting the nomination are going to put the bat in Rubio’s hands here so he can go swing it in New Hampshire.”
There are signs of worry coming from the Cruz camp, which on Friday began shifting its negative advertising from Trump to Rubio, according to a report in The New York Times.
The move comes a day after Cruz had a shaky debate performance by his standards. The Texas Republican absorbed cutting attacks from his rivals, including Rubio, who chided him for his holier-than-thou approach.
Still, Rubio faces deep skepticism from some quarters.
He has long been the golden boy of the elite conservative media, which has provoked backlash from many grassroots conservatives who still feel burned by his immigration reform betrayal.
Furthermore, Rubio’s slow-burn campaign has flashed promise but so far failed to deliver. He has posted lackluster fundraising numbers, and been criticized for not campaigning hard enough in Iowa.
According to the Des Moines Register campaign appearance tracker, Cruz has held 140 events in the state over 53 days this cycle, more than anyone except for Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the last two winners of the Iowa caucuses.
Rubio places seventh in visits, with 92 events held over 45 days.
“You’ve got to stop and ask yourself an important question,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “For all of the very favorable and high profile attention and media stories and glowing exposes about Rubio, its not translating with rank and file Republicans. It’s not necessarily translating for strong conservatives."
"There’s got to be a reason why, after all the good noise, a guy like Rubio isn’t running away with at least the establishment wing of the vote, and still struggling to get to third place,” Steele said.
Furthermore, some believe that Cruz’s decline has been overstated.
The Texas Republican has more money and as good an organization as anyone in Iowa. He’s put in his time there, and with the exception of a few defections to Trump, has the backing of nearly the entirety of the evangelical community.
“Cruz is most likely to outperform,” Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray told The Hill in an email. “Historically the polls have underestimated the religious conservative candidate in Iowa (see Huckabee, Santorum), while getting all the others pretty much right.”
That assumes that Trump doesn’t steamroll the entire field as he’s done the entire cycle and leave nothing but scraps for any potential late-surging candidates.
Still, for Rubio, who has sought to temper expectations and avoid peaking too early at every turn, there are worse things to be than a stalking horse with low expectations.
“He’s slowly been moving up and I expect he’ll do well here,” said Iowa State University political director Steffen Schmidt. “It just feels like he’s likeliest to be the guy the establishment turns to because they’re scared to death of the two front-runners.”
-- Ben Kamisar contributed.