Rubio is backing Joni Ernst, a state senator and Iowa National Guard officer, who has scratched and clawed her way to become the front-runner in the primary. So far, to help Ernst, Rubio has run TV commercials and he campaigned with her in a Des Moines suburb on Monday in a last-minute campaign appearance.
Iowa isnt exactly natural turf for Rubio if he runs for president in 2016. Despite being the first contest, in recent Republican caucuses, Iowa has been a thorn in the side to the GOP establishment, giving wins to Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum while the likes of Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson all did well there.
Its tough to imagine Rubio rallying the same kind of Iowa conservatives that propelled Huckabee and Santorum to victory. But Rubios support could be crucial for Ernst. Polls released this week have shown Ernst close to breaking 35 percent in the crowded primary which would help her avoid a convention fight. If Ernst avoids a runoff by the skin of her teeth, Rubio backers can make the claim that his commercials, Monday appearance and the coverage in local news broadcasts helped get her across the line.
If he runs for president, Rubio doesnt have the luxury of avoiding Iowa like Bill Clinton and John McCain did. Hell have to have an impressive showing before moving onto more favorable territory like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Its worked several times over the years: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Mike Dukakis, Clinton, McCain and Mitt Romney all went on to win their partys nominations despite losing in Iowa.
Rubio has taken his lumps from conservatives in recent months, especially in regard to his support of immigration reform. Some Iowa Republicans who cast their votes for Huckabee, Santorum or Buchanan are very unlikely to vote for Rubio. But Rubio can diminish their hostilities and regain some of the luster he had before he led the fight for immigration reform.
Some of the other presidential hopefuls are backing other candidates in Tuesdays primary but most of them are on the sidelines, not wanting to wade into a competitive primary despite it being in a key state. Rubio is one of the few who is behind Ernst and, if she wins, his stock in Iowa should start to tick up again. Right now, Rubios apparently made a wise bet.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.