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Is Marco Rubio The Candidate Republicans Date But Don't Marry?

Republican presidential candidate and Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a campaign stop in New Hampshire last week. When he started the race, he said recently, "the only people that thought I could win were all in my house. Four of them were under the age of 10."
Jim Cole
Republican presidential candidate and Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a campaign stop in New Hampshire last week. When he started the race, he said recently, "the only people that thought I could win were all in my house. Four of them were under the age of 10."

Marco Rubio has been flying under the radar this summer, not picking any social media fights with his Republican rivals and steering clear of controversial issues, such as Donald Trump's immigration policies.

In the crowded Republican presidential field, Rubio is kind of like the guy everybody wants to date, but not marry — at least yet.

Rubio is currently polling in single digits among Republican candidates nationally. But that's not because GOP voters dislike him; in fact they really like him. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in July showed 62 percent of GOP primary voters would "consider" voting for Rubio. But, that's the key word — "consider."

Ignoring The Naysayers

At a casino hotel ballroom in Reno, Nev., Rubio radiated with charisma as he campaigned. The 44-year-old Cuban-American wore a constant smile on his face as he shook hands, took selfies and joked with people.

The junior senator from Florida acknowledged that some folks worry about his experience.

"When, I decided to run for president, I had people come forward and tell me, 'You need to wait; it's not your turn,' " Rubio said. "I had no idea there was a line."

He also said he's not going to listen to the naysayers because he's been in this situation before, when he ran for the Senate — and won.

"And, when I started that race, I was 50 points down," he said. "In fact, the only people that thought I could win were all in my house. Four of them were under the age of 10."

The crowd of a couple of hundred people laughed and cheered him on.

"I liked him, I was more impressed with him in person than on TV," said 55-year-old Linda Leibhardt, a cafeteria worker in the Washoe County school district. Leibhardt said she's considering Rubio, but, at this point, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are higher on her list. "They stand for what I believe in more," she said. "They go against the grain."

Still, Leibhardt said, she really liked Rubio's personality.

So did Deborah Skeans, a nursing teacher at nearby Truckee Meadows Community College.

"I think he spoke really really well," said Skeans. But she, also, has not yet settled on Rubio as her top candidate.

"There's a couple that I like, he's one of the ones I like," she said. "One of the things I do want to know is illegal immigration, cause that's a really big concern to me."

The fact that people like him "is a really good early sign for Marco Rubio," said Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor of The Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report.

Rothenberg said Rubio is the classic case of a candidate who needs not just a week or a month to introduce himself to voters — he needs many months.

"For most voters, they don't know Marco Rubio, except in Florida," said Rothenberg. He said voters seem to like what they hear, but they haven't heard enough.

"Very few people say, 'No, I can't support Marco Rubio,' " said Rothenberg, "So, Rubio is still at a relatively early stage of introducing himself to voters."

Rothenberg said part of Rubio's wide appeal is that he's not an extreme candidate; he's not the angriest candidate, the most establishment guy, the most Tea Party Republican; he simply appeals to "mainstream conservatives who are looking for a potential winner."

But, whether he can turn his abstract popularity into real votes is still the million-dollar question, according to Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.

"The hope, I think, if you are Marco Rubio right now is that an opening is revealed as we move through the campaign," Walter said. "If you're Marco Rubio, you say if [Jeb Bush or Scott Walker] start to stumble and look like they are not strong alternatives to Donald Trump, here's my chance to present my case."

Walter likened it to an "accidental candidate ... the people everyone was focusing on don't look as strong as they once did. I'm gonna come up out of the wings and be that alternative."

But, of course, Walter said, Rubio needs an opening for that to actually happen.

Still No. 2

The day after his Reno rally, Rubio stopped by a community center in Carson City where another 100-plus people were on hand to hear him speak, including a bunch of seniors from a nearby high school.

Derek Dearaway, 23, a recent college graduate on the hunt for a job, was one of many young faces in the crowd.

"I would totally vote for Marco Rubio," he said, after taking a selfie with the candidate. He corrected himself, "I would definitely vote for him — 'totally' sounds a little immature."

Dearaway said Rubio's message resonated with him.

"There's just a certain level of optimism, youth that he embodies, that I really like, that — that's what excites me about him," Dearaway said.

But for Rubio to win the Republican nomination, he needs to woo a number of older, traditional GOP voters, like 69-year-old Ann Bednarski, who came to this "meet and greet" decked out in an American flag hat decorated with sequins and a coordinating patriotic neck scarf.

"Truthfully, I came here thinking he's too young," she said.

But, she changed her mind after hearing Rubio speak. She said he sounded so earnest, like "the boy next door."

"I thought 'he is the guy,' so I am seriously considering him now," she said.

Bednarski likes Rubio — a lot. She was holding a Rubio sign in her hand on her way home. Stilll, she said, at this moment, he's probably her No. 2 pick.

She's not sure what it'll take for him to become her No. 1.

Analysts say maybe it'll just take time.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.