Rubio, not Trump, is now the defining figure in the GOP race

Will Bad Attendance Be Rubio's Achilles Heel?

Cycles in presidential campaigns begin with hopeful conjecture, outright lies, blind tabloid items that can't ever be proved or disproved. This week the Marco Rubio cycle began. Marco Rubio is now the "front-runner" for the Koch brothers' support and cash, the New York Daily News reported yesterday morning, citing a source "who ran into David Koch at a recent event in Manhattan." That sourcing sounds pretty shaky — David Koch has never seemed like someone who blurts out his political plans to the restroom attendant, though, who knows, people always surprise you — but of course it's hard to imagine that the item isn't true. By the time Rubio and Donald Trump arrived in Las Vegas yesterday to speak in separate events at the same time, the hype seemed almost anxious: "High Noon Out West Between Trump and Rubio the Kid," the Times had announced this morning. Trump has recently lost interest in insulting Jeb Bush and started insulting Rubio. As an insult comic, the Donald has lately been somewhat overrated, and he has taken a grasping line on Rubio: that the younger man was sweaty and needed to gulp water during the second presidential debate, that this marks him as a lightweight. Hydration issues aside, that Trump has trained his own sights on the Floridian (much as the press has, and evidently the Kochs) has helped to confirm that the party's outsider energies may be dissipating a bit. In this new phase the race's pivotal figure may no longer be Trump, the most bombastic candidate, but Rubio, the most talented one.


If the Times is right and Las Vegas was the site of the showdown, then the symbolism isn't especially auspicious for the casinomagnate turned populist politician. Trump is inescapably the candidate of the Strip, of the Vegas illusion, of everything about the city that feels gaudy and impermanent. Rubio can lay claim to a more human experience here. As a child Rubio spent six years living in a working-class Las Vegas neighborhood while his father worked here as a banquet-hall bartender — "behind a portable bar," his son likes to say in his speeches, and that portable carries some feeling for the precariousness of working-class life. The casinos offered little for kids, and so the Rubio immigrant parents took him driving past the grand Vegas mansions, Liberace's among them, explaining to their kids that this kind of success was possible for them in this country. As Nevada's politics have matured — as the place has become increasingly Hispanic and increasingly pivotal, as the state's key figure has become Brian Sandoval, the Hispanic Republican governor — they have left behind Trump's great themes, of the certainty that America will always win, and moved right into Rubio's, of whether the promise of the American Dream that the country holds out to immigrants is still possible.

During the 2008 campaign there was much worrying over the nearly complete whiteness of Iowa and New Hampshire — the way the early primary states might suppress the influence of black voters in the Democratic primary. But this time the singular hue of Iowa and New Hampshire has had a different effect. It has kept off-screen the Republican Party's essential demographic challenge, of winning something other than the votes of white men. Rubio's argument is that though immigrants can cause problems, they also supply a restorative aspiration and optimism. That is just as much the modern Nevada story as it is Rubio's own.

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Rubio, not Trump, is now the defining figure in the GOP race
IN FLIGHT - FEBRUARY 10: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks with reporters on his charter flight from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport February 10, 2016 en route to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Rubio placed fifth in the New Hampshire primary, behind fellow GOP candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump, who swept away the competition with 35-percent of the vote. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MT PLEASANT, SC - JANUARY 13: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets guests during a campaign rally at the Water Dog Grill on January 13, 2016 in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Tomorrow Rubio will join other candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president for a debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in North Charleston, S.C.. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, waits to speak during a town hall meeting at the Maytag Innovation Center in Newton, Iowa, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Rubio found himself under siege on two fronts Tuesday over his attendance record in the U.S. Senate as the Florida lawmaker embarked on a swing through snowy Iowa. Photographer: Scott Morgan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MIAMI BEACH, FL - NOVEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets people before speaking during a community rally for 'Never Again' which was bringing attention to what the organizers say is a rise in worldwide anti-Semitism and the campaign against Israel's right to exist on November 15, 2015 in Miami Beach, Florida. Rubio continues to campaign for the Republican party's nomination. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA - NOVEMBER 21: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to guests during a town hall meeting on November 21, 2015 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Yesterday Rubio participated in the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines with six of his Republican rivals for the nomination. Rubio has several campaign stops scheduled in the state today. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council meetings in Washington, DC, November 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 12: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the Sunshine Summit opening dinner at Disney's Contemporary Resort on November 12, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.The dinner is the kick-off of a three-day event that will draw thousands of Republicans, mostly to hear live speeches from all the GOP presidential candidates on Friday and Saturday. (Photo by Tom Benitez - Pool/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 13: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the Sunshine Summit conference being held at the Rosen Shingle Creek on November 13, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. The summit brought Republican presidential candidates in front of the Republican voters. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign rally at the Country Springs Hotel in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. Rubio will appear at Tuesday's Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CONCORD, NH - NOVEMBER 05: Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) files paperwork for the New Hampshire primary at the State House on November 5, 2015 in Concord, New Hampshire. Each candidate must file paperwork to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot, which will be held February 9, 2016. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio leaves the New Hampshire State House after filing for the state ballot November 5, 2015 in Concord, New Hampshire. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 4: Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) participates in a round table discussion at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Rubio is looking for a bump in the polls following a strong outing in the last debate. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
GREENVILLE, SC - SEPTEMBER 18: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to voters at the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum September 18, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina. Eleven republican candidates each had twenty five minutes to talk to voters Friday at the Bons Secours Wellness arena in the upstate of South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at Civic Hall about the 'sharing economy' on October 6, 2015 in New York City. Rubio, who has been experiencing a slight uptick in the polls after strong debate performances, has a second book out in paperback this Tuesday called American Dream: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 26: GOP Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., holds a town hall meeting in Londonderry, N.H., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 18: Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (L) (R-FL) mans the grill with U.S. Rep. David Young (R) (R-IA) at the Iowa Pork Producers Pork Tent during the Iowa State Fair on August 18, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Presidential candidates are addressing attendees at the Iowa State Fair on the Des Moines Register Presidential Soapbox stage and touring the fairgrounds. The State Fair runs through August 23. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - August 17: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., greets supporters during a Family Night event at Dean Park in Ankeny, Iowa, Monday, August 17, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 14: Marco Rubio gives speach for the Foreign Policy Initiative at 3 West Club on August 14, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participates in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 05: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets guests gathered for a campaign event at Town Hall on August 5, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Rubio is in Cleveland to participate in the Fox News GOP presidential candidate debate scheduled to take place tomorrow evening. The top ten polling Republican candidates were chosen to participate in the debate. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, smiles while speaking during a rally at Town Hall restaurant ahead of the Fox News Republican Presidential Primary Debate in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Rubio will appear on stage with 9 other presidential candidates for the first Republican presidential debate tomorrow evening while former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal didn't make the cut. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 'Road to Majority' legislative luncheon in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 18, 2015. The annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference gives top-tier presidential contenders as well as long shots a chance to compete for the large evangelical Christian base in the crowded Republican primary contest. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BOONE, IA - JUNE 06: Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) waits his turn to speak at a Roast and Ride event hosted by freshman Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) on June 6, 2015 in Boone, Iowa. Ernst is hoping the event, which featured a motorcycle tour, a pig roast, and speeches from several 2016 presidential hopefuls, becomes an Iowa Republican tradition. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
GREENVILLE, SC - MAY 09: Republican Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets supporters at the Freedom Summit on May 9, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina. Rubio joined eleven other potential candidates in addressing the event hosted by conservative group Citizens United. (Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
NASHUA, NH - APRIL 17: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 17, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Summit brought together local and national Republicans and was attended by all the Republicans candidates as well as those eyeing a run for the nomination. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - APRIL 13: Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a formal announcement that he is entering the 2016 Presidential race at the Freedom Tower on April 13, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photos by Charles Ommanney for the Washington Post)

Step back from today's "showdown," take a slightly longer perspective, and it is startling how well the race has gone for Rubio so far. One of the two early favorites for the nomination, Scott Walker, has already abandoned the race; the other, Jeb Bush, is struggling badly. Even though the early campaign has emphasized immigration, the issue on which Rubio is most alienated from the mainstream of the party, he has not taken a direct hit, in part because he has run a low-key and noncombative early campaign, and it seems likely that as Rubio comes to the fore the energies around the issue may fade, at least a little bit. Analysts have noticed how rapidly Rubio is catching up, both in the polls and in the betting markets.

Meanwhile, Rubio's campaign has been filled with small-scale genial deftness. Asked on Fox News about the Black Lives Matter protests, he called it "a legitimate issue" and said that a professional African-American friend of his had been stopped by police "eight or nine times" in the past 18 months for "no legitimate reason." Far more than Bush or Trump, Rubio has seemed to grasp that the essential challenge of the current election is not only ideological but also generational: a battle over whether Hillary Clinton can complete the long post-baby-boomer project, which moved through her husband's presidency and Obama's of moving the country's politics to the left in ways that reflected social transformations of the '60s. "Turn the page on yesterday," Rubio urged, when I saw him in New Hampshire on Wednesday. This is the obvious message that Republicans would want to take into a general-election campaign against Hillary Clinton. It is also one that, among the leading Republican candidates, uniquely suits Rubio.

Rubio's crowds are still not as big as Trump's, and he has raised much less money than Bush has. That he has so far stayed away from the center means that the senator is still a somewhat vague and soft-focus candidate, of hope but not clear edges. He still has not effectively defended his record on immigration to his party's base, has not been forced to reconcile his dreamy budget with reality, has not had to defend his militarism against charges that it is naïve nor had to prove that his social conservatism was not badly outdated. He has never attacked. Even now you see the idea of the candidate more clearly than you see the candidacy itself.

The most interesting political question of the past four yearswhether the right-wing insurgency represents a basic reordering of conservatism or simply an expression of its anger (the Tea Party: Revolution or Evolution? Discuss)has not yet been resolved, and as frequently as Rubio is compared to Obama, he has to map less-certain terrain. In Washington conservative politics has become an identity demonstration as much as anything, and if that is the mood in the early primary states by the winter, the senator from Florida probably can't win. And so even as he surges, his campaign has an interstitial feeling. Rubio avoids conflict, talks hopefully about the future to the elderly, assembles positions on which he might move either right or left. And, as Trump noticed, he minds his hydration, since in a marathon the last thing you want is to be beset by thirst.

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