Today, Mr. Rubio isn’t blocked. Instead, he has a big opening.
Mr. Walker dropped out of the race, and Mr. Bush does not look nearly as strong as it seemed he might. Mr. Bush hasn’t won many endorsements, he isn’t faring well in the polls, and his impressive fund-raising reflects a narrow base of strong support from wealthy super PAC donors, not wide support by party elites.
Can Mr. Rubio take advantage of the opening? He hasn’t quite had his moment in the media spotlight, he hasn’t made big gains in the polls, and he hasn’t earned many endorsements. But the political landscape surrounding his candidacy could not have changed much more in his favor over the last six months.
Mr. Walker’s exit is the most obvious and recent development to help broaden the path ahead. Yes, Mr. Walker had lost nearly all of his support in the polls by the time he left the race, but he still had a significant level of support from Republican elites, and Mr. Rubio has picked up several former members of Team Walker.
Mr. Walker’s withdrawal did more than release his old supporters. It narrowed the choice for mainstream conservative donors, voters and officials who had been waiting on the sidelines. Without Mr. Walker in the race, the choice for mainstream conservatives started becoming clearer. Unless they are willing to support an anti-establishment candidate like Ted Cruz, it’s down to Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush.
The choice between those two will undoubtedly be difficult for many conservatives in the party. But from the beginning, there were a fair number of conservatives who weren’t likely to support Mr. Bush, and their choice has now become substantially easier.
Mr. Bush hasn’t done much to make this a hard decision. He has struggled to gain traction with voters. And he’s in danger of being caught in a feedback loop: His struggle to break through to voters has raised the doubts of party elites, making it more difficult for him to consolidate the elite support that could help him overcome the skepticism of voters and block viable rivals, like Mr. Rubio.
The sense that Mr. Rubio’s position has improved is reflected in the betting markets, which show him rising steadily to a 29 percent chance of winning the nomination, more than twice the 13 percent he held before the last Republican debate. Mr. Bush is at 31 percent.
Mr. Rubio, however, will still need to capitalize on the voids created by Mr. Walker’s exit and Mr. Bush’s weakness. With well-received debate performances, he has been praised as the best communicator in his party and has strong favorability ratings. But he has not yet become the top choice of many party elites or voters; in fact, he holds about as much support in the polls as Mr. Bush, and far fewer endorsements.
Mr. Rubio’s biggest shortcoming is that he is not the natural favorite of any wing of the party, which is the easiest way for a candidate to become the first choice of a meaningful block of voters. He’s the opposite of candidates like Mr. Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and John Kasich, who have messages and political identities that resonate with one of the party’s core constituencies, like the Tea Party, evangelicals, libertarians or moderates.
Mr. Rubio’s challenge could simply be a reflection of his greatest strength — his wide appeal. The son-of-a-bartender message is so broadly attractive in part because it’s aimed at no one, except, perhaps, bartender households.
The challenge is even harder because of Iowa and New Hampshire, two unrepresentative states but unrepresentative in different ways. Republican candidates with deep support among conservatives or evangelicals have a big advantage in Iowa; candidates favored by moderates and independents fare well in New Hampshire. A broadly appealing candidate could lose out.
Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2008 is an instructive precedent. He entered the homestretch that year with the most elite support and broad appeal throughout the party. But the evangelicals’ candidate, Mr. Huckabee, won the Iowa caucuses while the “maverick,” John McCain, rallied and won the moderate New Hampshire. Mr. Romney, the mainstream conservative, took second in both.
Mr. Rubio hasn’t made much progress toward building support in either state, but with these changes, the context has probably improved in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. Walker was such a perfect fit for Iowa’s mainstream conservatives that it was hard to see where Mr. Rubio had room to maneuver. Now with Mr. Walker out, a large number of outsiders and conservatives could split the “very conservative” vote, helping to widen the path for a mainstream conservative like Mr. Rubio. Mr. Romney’s 25 percent wasn’t enough in 2008 or 2012, but it could be good enough for a candidate this year.
A similar story is playing out in New Hampshire. Mr. Bush, a relative moderate, looked to be a good fit for the state, but it seems clear that his establishment brand isn’t resonating quite like Mr. McCain’s. The entry of Mr. Kasich and the endurance of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey will help split the relatively moderate vote further, again possibly making room for a more mainstream conservative.
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But it’s also possible that Mr. Rubio’s problems run deeper than the factional politics of a severely divided party. Perhaps his vaunted communication skills haven’t turned into big polling gains because his personal traits — he’s a young, Catholic, Latino lawyer from Miami — don’t help him resonate among old, evangelical, white, less-educated and rural voters. His youthful appearance may not help assuage concerns about his preparedness for the presidency.
Beyond his limited experience in national politics, he has big vulnerabilities on his failed immigration reform effort and his ties to a billionaire benefactor.
But for the first time, the main question about Mr. Rubio isn’t whether he has a clear opportunity, but whether he can take advantage of it. He couldn’t have asked for much more.