When Marco Rubio landed in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses, he looked more like a new father than the surprise third-place Iowa finisher. “Turnout was massive,” he declared at a diner in Manchester, all smiles and handshakes. Someone eating breakfast tried to give him celebratory cigars, an offer he could not refuse. “Let’s hide them, guys,” he said to reporters. “I don’t want my kids to see.”
No candidate in the Republican race does coy quite like Rubio, and no campaign has operated with such stealthy, even efficiency. When he entered the race in April 2015, the big Establishment money had gone to his former mentor, Jeb Bush. The Tea Party that Rubio once claimed had gravitated to Ted Cruz. And no one had foreseen the Donald Trump phenomenon.
But Rubio’s aides scripted a race that called for him to lie low for months, spending most of 2015 at fundraisers and tightly controlled events with minimal press exposure. His strategists didn’t want to take on Trump or Bush. They bet that Rubio could wait out his rivals and depend on his broad, youthful appeal and consistently strong debate performances to rise above the pack. He wasn’t a grinder like Bush. Nor was he a live wire for conservative fury like Cruz. He was running, like Barack Obama in 2008, as a potential inspirer in chief. All he needed was to catch fire at just the right time.
And that he did. In the final Des Moines Register Iowa poll, Rubio registered 15% along likely caucusgoers. Days later, he took a notable 23% of the GOP vote, only a few thousand votes shy of Trump’s 24% and an order of magnitude ahead of the other candidates acceptable to mainline Republicans. Exit polls showed he dominated the late-breaking deciders. “I don’t play expectations games,” Rubio told a reporter in Manchester.
The truth is closer to the opposite. In the days before the caucus, Rubio’s top strategist, Todd Harris, would start to cuss when reporters even suggested his candidate could come in second. Now the strategy has shifted, and Rubio’s staff have begun to argue inevitability. “I think a lot of those people who are currently supporting other candidates are going to quickly start to realize that we can’t afford to be divided anymore,” said Rubio fundraiser Adam Hasner about the big-money donor class.
The remaining governors challenging Rubio in the party establishment lane plan to make New Hampshire their last stand. As Rubio was celebrating, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dubbed him “the boy in the bubble.” Bush dismissed him as a “backbench” Senator, and Ohio Governor John Kasich’s campaign said Rubio had no record of accomplishment. Rubio brushed them off like flies. “Sometimes when people run into adversity, they don’t react well and they say things they maybe will regret later,” he told reporters.
What is unknown is how he will perform under the new spotlight. Rubio has traveled the country in a scripted fashion designed to prevent embarrassments. Until recently, he surrounded himself with a phalanx of staffers wearing matching fleeces and Secret Service–style earpieces and walkie-talkies. His events are meticulously staged, with rope or barricades keeping supporters and the press from approaching the candidate–an unusual sight in the freewheeling early states–and he almost always speaks from a small platform to make himself look bigger. “It’s O.K., you can take that,” his communications director told him at a recent event in Iowa, after a reporter shouted a question at him.
At the diner in Manchester, a group of Bernie Sanders supporters tried to corral Rubio with a question about nuclear disarmament. At first the triumphant candidate moved to respond. “Let me say hi to these people,” he said. But his protective staff waved him off. “I’ll see you guys in a second,” Rubio said, never to return.
This appears in the February 15, 2016 issue of TIME.