There is often a point in Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s stump speech when he offers a fortune-cookie proverb so uplifting and patriotic, it takes the oxygen from the room. “What makes America special is that there are people who are not rich who are happy,” he will say. “What has made us different here is that anyone from anywhere can achieve anything.”
Nothing is particularly new or partisan about the lines, but that is not the point. His goal is to captivate conservative crowds, as if he were an actor in a movie’s climactic scene. And the crowds tend to respond, refraining from their next sip of wine or beer to stare at the young Cuban American as he promises to calm their fears and lead them forward. “While America owes me absolutely nothing,” the candidate will continue, “I have a debt to America that I will never repay.”
For former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the onetime Republican front runner and Rubio mentor, these moments are exasperating, if only because Bush cannot match them. “I’m not a performer,” Bush said after the third Republican debate, in which Rubio effortlessly embarrassed him. As a result, Rubio, 44, has climbed to third in Republican polls, behind two political amateurs, Ben Carson and Donald Trump. For the moment, in the tumultuous GOP psyche, raw political talent beats governing experience in a walk.
The heart of the Rubio campaign strategy is basically the opposite of Bush’s “joyful tortoise” plod. “Marco Rubio has the potential to capture lightning in a bottle,” Mitt Romney adviser Spencer Zwick explained back in February, pointing to the same emotional connection that made national leaders out of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, it is the only election strategy Rubio has ever had. He won long-shot races to the West Miami city commission, the Florida statehouse, the Florida house speakership and the U.S. Senate by simply outperforming the other guy each time.
In that way, he is clearly following the path that pulled Obama from the Illinois state legislature to the White House in four short years. Like Obama, Rubio has the ability to conceal his sharp ideological bent with a broad message anchored in essential themes. Whereas Obama spoke of how his father “grew up herding goats,” Rubio always mentions, “My father was a bartender.” For Rubio’s foes, this strength is a potential weakness. A leaked Bush-campaign strategy memo called Rubio the “GOP Obama” with “no accomplishments” who has “never been in charge of anything larger than two dozen people.”
Rubio’s response is to return to his conservative bona fides, which are widely admired across the party. “I don’t think he has failed because of a lack of experience,” he will say of Obama. “He has failed because his ideas don’t work. Our ideas do work.”
At this point in the campaign cycle, the opinions that matter most are the wealthy ones, and Rubio’s message has been winning them over. Hedge-fund financier Paul Singer, perhaps the biggest whale loose in the Republican sea, endorsed Rubio before Halloween, calling him “one of the best communicators the modern Republican Party has seen.” Rubio has also been courting casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has been telling friends he may pick a horse after the Nov. 10 debate.
There’s an old saw about presidential campaigns that Bill Clinton popularized: Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line. As Bush retools his stump speech with fiery lines like “We’re Americans, damn it,” Rubio has wagered that the opposite will be true this cycle. Democrats will go with Hillary Clinton, an Establishment pillar who struggles with heartstrings, and Republicans will pass on the pecking order to find the person who can take out Clinton with odes to the next generation.
After an Oct. 30 rally in Sioux City, Iowa, the strategy seemed right on track. “You just listen to him and say, ‘Oh, he is just superb,'” gushed Brittany McNally, a 21-year-old student from Lincoln, Neb., who drove across the state line to hear Rubio. And what did she think about Bush? “I think Jeb’s a nerd,” she said.
–With additional reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER/RAYMOND, N.H.
This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.
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