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Marco Rubio Places His Bets in Iowa and New Hampshire

May 8, 2014 - 6:00pm

Even as Jeb Bush makes more noise about entering the presidential race, Marco Rubio continues to look at running for the Republican nomination in 2016, focusing on early states this week.

After Mitt Romney lost, Rubio appeared to be one of the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. But Rubios stock declined in 2013 as he championed immigration reform, an issue that simply isnt popular with the tea party or the conservative base. Rubios been eclipsed by the likes of Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and other potential primary rivals.

Rubios looking to get back in the game. This week, he rolled the dice in Iowa, backing a candidate in the competitive Republican primary to replace Tom Harkin in the Senate. Rubio threw his weight behind Joni Ernst, stressing her conservatism. Ernst faces a crowded field with conservatives backing Sam Clovis and Matt Whitaker while Mark Jacobs is also in the mix, insisting hes an outsider. Democrat Bruce Braley will be waiting for whichever Republican wins and, even if Ernst goes down, expect Rubio to be campaigning in Iowa come fall. This seat is pretty crucial as Republicans look to flip the Senate from Democrats in November.

But Iowa isnt exactly Rubio territory. In recent years, conservatives like Mike Huckabee have beaten out the candidates the GOP establishment backed in the Iowa caucus. New Hampshire, the first primary state which went for John McCain and Mitt Romney, seems much more fertile ground for Rubio.

The senator from Florida was getting active in New Hampshire this week. On Friday, Rubio held a fundraiser for Kelly Ayotte in Boston. He has helped out Ayotte before, running commercials for her in 2013, praising her for standing up to gun control efforts, even though she doesnt face voters until 2016. After the fundraiser, Rubio went to New Hampshire to meet with the media, speak at a fundraiser for the state GOP and attend an event for the Rockingham County Republican Committee. All in all, a busy day for Rubio in New Hampshire.

Even though he had not been to New Hampshire for two years, the state makes sense for Rubio if he sets his sights on the White House. Despite a few hiccups -- Pat Buchanan, anyone? -- New Hampshire generally backs the establishments choice in the Republican primaries over the conservative who emerges in Iowa.

Even though immigration has done some damage to Rubio, he might have a bigger challenge facing him as he looks at making a presidential bid. Rubios growing more vocal in the Senate and his profile is on the rise. But thats not necessarily a good thing. Voters think Washington is broken and Republicans might not want to go with a senator as their presidential nominee.

This week, reports came out that Beltway Republicans, even those in the Senate, are not thrilled with the idea of senators like Rubio, Paul and Cruz as their candidate in 2016. That means Republicans could be looking for a governor -- Bush, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence -- to be their standard bearer.

Despite it all, as his dabbling in Iowa and New Hampshire shows, Rubio is at least trying to keep himself in the 2016 conversation. If he runs, Rubio will need a breakthrough in one of those two states before the ground gets friendlier in South Carolina and Florida. Look for Rubio to stay busy in Iowa and even back Scott Browns uphill bid against Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshires Senate race. If hes serious about 2016, Rubio needs to get going in the early states and those two Senate contests offer him a perfect jumping-on point.

Tallahassee-based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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