In the Republican presidential race, Marco Rubio is the man in the middle.
Heading into New Hampshire's primary Tuesday, he's got to keep gaining on front-runners Ted Cruz, who won Iowa's caucuses Monday, and Donald Trump, who finished second.
"This is not a time for patience. This is a time for urgent action, because if we get this election done, there may be no turning around for America," he told hundreds of people at a picturesque town hall Tuesday night in the New Hampshire town of Exeter. "We must at the end of this process bring this party and this movement together."
Before he can try to do that, though, Rubio will have to fend off challenges from three governors who barely registered among Iowa Republicans but have dedicated most of their energy and cash to reaching New Hampshire's maverick voters.
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Rubio could let Trump and Cruz duke it out for the anti-establishment vote, with the hope that one will destroy the other. It will be impossible for him to avoid confrontations with the other establishment Republicans -- especially since his campaign started urging donors after the caucuses to pressure Rubio's mainstream rivals to bow out of the contest.
Two of them, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, wasted no time Tuesday, intensifying their hits on Rubio, a first-term Florida senator, over his lack of executive experience (Bush) and his disavowing comprehensive-immigration reform he had sponsored in the Senate (Christie).
"If you look at their records," Bush said about Rubio and Cruz, "they're gifted in how they speak, but what about their life experience? Is there something in their past that would suggest they have the capability of making a tough decision?"
Christie was even harsher, blasting Rubio as "the boy in the bubble" who overplayed his Iowa showing with a victorious speech Monday night and who sounds "constantly scripted."
"I listened to Marco's speech last night. You would've thought he won," Christie said. "Saying it doesn't make it so. He's got to come up here, and he's got to compete, and he's got to be under the microscope -- and it's going to be a very interesting week for him, I can assure you that."
Christie finished 10th out of 12 in Iowa. Bush finished sixth.
Rubio reached New Hampshire with a bounce in his step, fielding TV interviews in a Manchester diner early in the morning after taking the red-eye from Des Moines.
His evening rally -- in an actual, old-fashioned town hall building -- had the air of celebration.
In a Fox News interview from Exeter, Rubio noted Christie did "poorly" in Iowa and brushed off criticism he's rehearsed by insisting he repeats what he believes: "When you're running a campaign, you're driving a message," he said. "Why would I tell people anything other than what I believe passionately?"
He also said he didn't think candidates such as Bush should drop out yet, though "I do think it's time for the Republican Party to begin to coalesce.
"For weeks, the New Hampshire primary has been a competition among the GOP's more mainstream rivals. Voters in the Granite State can cast primary ballots even if they're independents without party affiliation, which tends to benefit more moderate candidates.
The establishment contest has been seen as a four-way tussle among Rubio, Bush, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- and Rubio hasn't even been ahead of the pack.
His campaign is counting on Iowa fueling him in New Hampshire, perhaps enough to get a second-place finish. Eventually, his backers concede, Rubio would have to actually win a state to emerge as the nominee.
Rubio placed exactly where polls predicted him to in Iowa. His third-place margin was closer to second than had been expected, and he was awarded the same number of delegates -- seven -- as Trump. (Cruz got eight.)
The early presidential contests are just as much about winning delegates to the nominating convention as they are about beating expectations to attract more financial backers and elusive political momentum.
Rubio had kept Iowa expectations low, prompting questions about his dedication to the state, but stepped up his visits in past weeks and campaigned hard in the end. He was boosted by a typically solid debate performance last week -- and by at least $12 million in TV ad spending by his campaign and allied political committees, an amount second only to Bush.
Rubio did better in Iowa than his own campaign expected. He nipped Trump's heels: Cruz got 28 percent, Trump 24 percent and Rubio 23 percent. No other Republican cracked double digits: Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson came in fourth with 9 percent -- and promptly took some time off from the campaign trail to get a clean change of clothes from his West Palm Beach home. (Really.)
Results from the Iowa GOP race showed Rubio did best in the state's few but more densely populated urban and suburban areas, a sign of his potential in larger, more diverse and more urbanized states.
He attracted more moderate voters who made up their mind at the last minute and who were most concerned with electing a candidate who could beat a Democrat."If I'm our nominee, we're going to beat Hillary Clinton -- and it won't be by a flip of a coin," Rubio said in Exeter, joking about how Iowans handled ties in some of Monday's Democratic caucuses.Rubio's campaign and its allies seized on that message Tuesday.
Conservative Solutions PAC released a political ad Tuesday warning voters, "If you're not with Marco, you're electing the Democrats."And Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, may have unintentionally helped Rubio make his case by showing he's on her radar.She tweeted Tuesday: "Marco Rubio didn't 'win' by finishing in third in last night's #IowaCaucus -- but he's trying to say that he did.""I think people realize on the Republican side that we cannot afford -- this country cannot afford -- to lose this election, and that I give the party the best chance not just to unify the conservative movement but to grow it," Rubio said Tuesday on "Good Morning America." "And defeat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders."
Risks, though, abound.
Rubio's optimistic message of a better future, somewhat clouded recently by his fear-stoking outlook on national security, may play well in New Hampshire. After that, the electoral calendar is not on his side.
The Southern states, starting with South Carolina, have strong religious underpinnings that may be more welcoming to Cruz, who pulled more evangelical votes in Iowa than any other candidate, and Trump, who has drawn large crowds. Nevada, the fourth contest, offers some hope for Rubio, who spent part of his childhood there while his dad worked as a casino bartender, but polling has not put him ahead.
Rubio also will need cash to keep his campaign running -- and a suit of steel to handle the incoming attacks from Cruz and others.
In New Hampshire, rivals who share his more tempered conservative approach -- Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich -- want to halt his rise.
If Rubio expects to have the resources needed to push on, donors will need to coalesce around his campaign in a way that hasn't yet happened.
While the senator's fourth-quarter fundraising haul was his best yet, Rubio still lags behind the small-donor base Cruz has inspired, and Trump's ability to dip into his wealth to fund his campaign.
Rubio's team acknowledges the long haul is longer than they expected, but the goal is to build what the campaign calls "Marcomentum" until Florida, his home state, votes March 15, creating an inevitability of his nomination.
He picked up the backing Wednesday of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who echoed the campaign's message of winability.
"We have one shot in 2016 to beat Hillary Clinton and that shot is Marco Rubio, and with him as our candidate, we win."
Conservative Solutions, a super PAC supporting Rubio, began running TV ads nationally and in the early nominating states Tuesday to try to reinforce his inevitability.
"Marco Rubio is the conservative who can win -- and the Clinton machine knows it," said one ad. "Rubio beat the establishment. He'll unite Republicans and restore the American Dream."