Rubio seizes Cruz's message in Iowa

CNN/ Newswire | 1/20/2016, 6:38 a.m.
When Marco Rubio's top surrogate in Iowa introduces him to crowds of voters, he makes a pitch that sounds quite ...
Marco Rubio

When Marco Rubio's top surrogate in Iowa introduces him to crowds of voters, he makes a pitch that sounds quite familiar.

"This year, we can have someone who has a proven, consistent conservative message," said Jack Whitver, an Iowa state senator and co-chairman of his Hawkeye State campaign.

"Consistent conservative" also happens to be one of the main themes of Ted Cruz's campaign.

As Rubio is quickly becoming the choice of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he also is methodically trying to position himself as an anti-establishment hero with deep social conservative values -- not unlike Cruz.

In his stump speech, the Florida senator says his campaign is a repudiation of a GOP establishment that told him to "wait in line" in 2016 -- just like in his 2010 Senate race when he took down the party leadership's favorite candidate, Charlie Crist. He leans heavily into his religious views and anti-abortion stances in TV ads, a direct pitch to the evangelical voters who dominate the caucuses here and are a source of support for Cruz.

And in a new interview with CNN, Rubio sided with Cruz in the 2013 battle over Obamacare that prompted a 16-day government shutdown, a fight that enraged the party establishment but made the Texas Republican a hero on the far right.

"It's never a mistake to fight against Obamacare," Rubio said when pressed if he still agreed with the Cruz shutdown tactic. "All of us were involved in the effort to stop Obamacare."

Despite being viewed widely in Washington as an "establishment" favorite, Rubio's comments are an indication that he views his own candidacy differently as he heads into the final two weeks of campaigning in Iowa.

Unlike other candidates who draw support from one wing of the party or another, Rubio is trying to present himself as the lone candidate who can draw support from the various elements of the Republican coalition. In one breath, he talks about the United States as a "great nation in decline," not unlike the apocalyptic tones that lace Cruz speeches, and in another, he offers a positive forecast for a country he calls the greatest nation in the "history" of mankind.

That strategy presents its own pitfalls, particularly if no one group ends up particularly enamored with him. And trying to appeal to both the party establishment and the conservative base makes him a bigger target for his rivals, taking fire from the likes of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Cruz, all of whom characterize Rubio as a smooth-talking senator of little substance. After hearing Rubio's pitch last week, many voters were still keeping their options open.

Rubio brushed back suggestions this week when asked if he was trying to placate too many elements of the party all at once.

"These are the issues this campaign is about, so that's why I'm talking about them," he said.

But it also gives Rubio a chance to compete beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, even if he doesn't end up the winner in either of those first two contests. By stressing social issues, Rubio can win the social conservatives important in Iowa; military-minded voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina could be attracted to his hawkish foreign policy views.