Can Rubio Follow Romney’s Path to the Nomination?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 9, 2016 · 12:30 PM EST

Is Marco Rubio a conservative who wants to overthrow the GOP establishment or a potential standard-bearer for party pragmatists?  He’s trying to be both, of course.

That strategy has been tried before – by Mitt Romney. And it worked, sort of. The question now, after Rubio’s debate performance on Saturday night, is whether Rubio can pull it off.

Romney spent almost six years, from 2008, when he lost the Republican nomination, to 2012 trying to prove to conservatives that he was one of them. During the 2012 campaign he ran hard to the right, outflanking Texas Gov. Rick Perry on immigration and emphasizing his social and economic conservatism.

He understood that GOP conservatives were deeply skeptical about him, a former Massachusetts governor who once was pro-choice and had strongly supported a state health care proposal that was the forerunner of Obamacare.

Sure, he was then saying the right things, but that did not necessarily mean that he would govern like a conservative if elected, worried Tea Party Republicans.

To placate their fears, Romney got as far to the right as he could during the race for the 2012 nomination.

But moderates and pragmatists in the Republican Party never really worried about Romney’s new message. They knew his bloodlines and history, and they figured he was more like Ronald Reagan than Barry Goldwater – a conservative who understood how the system worked and would be able to work within it, rather than an ideologue who rejected the political assumptions of the day.

So, even though Romney moved unambiguously to the right in 2011 and stayed there during the primaries, his pragmatic supporters remained with him. A handful of Republicans flirted with Jon Huntsman Jr. in the Granite State primary (though his support came overwhelmingly from independents who voted in the GOP contest), but after the former Utah governor exited the race, there was no candidate to Mitt’s left.

Most establishment Republicans figured out what Romney was doing and why he was doing it, so they ignored rhetoric from him that would have made them uncomfortable had it come from another candidate.

Rubio seems to be doing much the same thing, though his party has changed and his positioning in it certainly is not identical to Romney’s in 2012. Certainly, Rubio was not as well-known as Romney was when the former Massachusetts governor began his second consecutive run for the GOP nomination.

When Rubio began his campaign, moderates may have remembered he was a member of the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators who hammered out a comprehensive immigration bill.  If they had seen him speak, they knew that he sounded more like Reagan than Rush Limbaugh.

Rubio was always upbeat, speaking about the future, opportunity and the promise of America. Yes, he was obviously conservative on the issues, but he didn’t spend most of his time railing against big government or complaining about Republican compromisers on Capitol Hill.

But Marco began his run for the presidency with more support on the right than Mitt ever had.

Though Rubio was part of the Florida Senate’s leadership and an ally of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the tea party embraced Rubio during his 2010 Senate primary against Gov. Charlie Crist, a true moderate. Crist eventually left the GOP to run as an independent, but Rubio echoed the tea party’s outsider message to ride the Republican wave to victory.

Still, many conservatives distrust Marco the way they did Mitt, and unlike 2012, when their alternatives lacked stature or seemed like old news, they have plenty of alternatives in 2016.

Conservative Glenn Beck called Rubio a “piece of garbage” in the summer of 2013, during the immigration debate, and shortly after Rubio entered the Republican race last year, Breitbart News blasted him for “his comprehensive amnesty bill.”

With a host of credentialed conservatives and pragmatists in the GOP race this cycle, Rubio has been squeezed from both sides. That made his positioning more difficult that Romney’s ever was.

Still, Rubio’s skill as an orator, and the limitations of other hopefuls competing in the establishment lane, helped the Florida senator emerge as the favorite in the establishment lane, at least up until Saturday’s New Hampshire debate.

Because of that, and because of the appeal of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the right, Rubio has had to do what Romney did: continue to woo conservatives. And he has.

The day after Rubio’s strong third-place finish in Iowa, his campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail that began: “Fellow Conservative, What a night! The media and the establishment had written me off weeks ago, but we proved them wrong.”

Of course, the media had not written Rubio off, nor had the establishment. In fact, the Iowa entrance poll showed that Rubio did so well because of his appeal to college graduates, non-evangelical voters, self-described “somewhat conservative” caucus attendees, and those who wanted someone who could win in November.

In other words, Rubio did well because of the establishment, not in spite of it.

Like Romney, Rubio understands that he is running in a conservative party, and he needs the support of conservatives.  And that requires him to continue to offer conservative, outsider and populist appeals, including trying to get to Cruz’s right on immigration.

But even if Rubio has a proven roadmap to the nomination, he still has a long way to go in the GOP contest. His party has become angrier and more confrontational during the last four years, and he still must convince Republican voters that he is mature enough and substantive enough to win a general election.

If Rubio’s New Hampshire debate stumble boosts other pragmatic hopefuls in the race, the Florida senator could find himself once again squeezed from both the left and the right. And that is something that Mitt Romney never had to deal with.