The Great Risk in Marco Rubio's 2016 Run

How the senator's team thinks he can beat the odds in 2016—and how easily it could all fall apart.

Marco Rubio dazzles in Miami on Monday evening, delivering a rhetorical performance that shows a national audience what political insiders have long known: The man can move a crowd. From there, it's off to the races.

Running a lean campaign—though one flush enough with mega-donor money to keep him in the conversation—Rubio continues to wow crowds. He's young, he's Latino in a party lacking diversity, and his unimpeachably hawkish stances on foreign policy continue to resonate amid a flood of troubling headlines from Iraq, Iran, Russia, and Syria.

He is outspent by Jeb Bush, but money can't buy the kind of connection Rubio is building with voters—and the front-runner's supposed support never materializes in the way he expected. Voters see 12 years in the White House as enough for one family and are looking for a fresher alternative. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker remains toward the front of the pack, but his lack of national experience shines through in a series of public miscues, and sooner or later, the electorate will sour. Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz split the evangelical vote. Rand Paul keeps his father's libertarian supporters but does little else, as his promised expansion of the electorate fails to materialize.

And as the primaries continue, the underdog keeps on winning, and soon enough, he has repeated the magic of his 2010 run, riding a surge of support past the former front-runners. But this time, it's all the way to the top of the Republican ticket—and with a head full of momentum all aimed squarely at Hillary Clinton.

Meet President Marco Rubio.

That's the dream -- and so far, just a dream -- for Rubio and the tight circle of advisers surrounding him. But ahead of his campaign launch Monday at Miami's historic Freedom Tower, they're insisting it's more than a fantasy.

"Jeb is the clear front-runner, Walker is a not quite very close second, and we're a strong third," a Rubio confidant told National Journal. "Our guy has to have the patience to let Walker stumble, as people with no national experience usually do, and be agile to take advantage of the opening."

Aides say Rubio's powerful oratory skills, compelling personal story, and detailed policy agenda will help him stand apart from Paul and Cruz, Senate colleagues and tea-party favorites who have spent much of their time opposing government—not trying to reinvent it.

And his announcement, staged at the port of call for Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro's Cuba, will function to highlight not only the historic nature of his candidacy as a Hispanic contender, but also the theme that has animated much of his political career: restoring the American dream.

His background as the son of middle-class Cuban immigrants -- his father was a bartender, his mother a maid -- makes him a powerful messenger on income inequality, one of the driving issues of the race, and his policy agenda is the most specific of any candidate so far. His optimistic vision, steeped in faith and a strong belief in American exceptionalism, packs an emotional punch.

"Marco has a space where he's the guy with this tremendous cultural fluency about conservatism," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist. "All these other folks can talk about it, but Marco can roll out of bed in the morning and talk about America."

Some of Bush's supporters, who had hoped Rubio would stand down, now see the senator as a credible threat.

Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush friend and adviser and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, called Rubio "the most gifted of all the candidates" when it comes to public speaking. Even as he trumpeted Bush's institutional advantages and deep bench of establishment support, he predicted that Rubio would be among a handful of contenders, including Bush, who survive the early primary states.

"If he has enough resources and goes straight to the people, he's going to be competitive," he said.

Backed by a small, close-knit group of advisers, Rubio plans to run a lean operation. With a crowded field, aides expect a marathon primary season and plan to stretch their dollars in the cheaper media markets of the smaller early-voting states.

"Jeb is building the New York Yankees. Marco is playing Moneyball," Wilson said. "The team may not be as prominent, but he's bringing together skill sets that make his campaign highly competitive."

Rubio's team has already put an emphasis on big data. A secret-money group linked to Rubio's super PAC commissioned a detailed, 270-page report on early-state primary voters last year, representing a trove of information that could help the senator target specific constituencies and develop campaign messages.

He is almost certain to have the funds to compete. While Bush has locked up most of the major donors from the Florida fundraising network he opened to Rubio in 2010, the senator can rely on a cadre of wealthy benefactors who are eager to see the fresh-faced upstart reinvigorate the party. And, in focusing on what he calls "a new American century," Rubio is making his generational contrast with Bush -- and Clinton -- implicit.

Chief among Rubio's backers is Norman Braman, the billionaire luxury-car dealer from Miami who has been a key supporter of the lawmaker since his days in the state legislature. He is expected to contribute as much as $10 million to Conservative Solutions, a new super PAC supporting Rubio.

"I don't believe in dynasties," said Braman, who predicted years ago that then-Florida House Speaker Rubio would become the nation's first Hispanic president. "I think it's time for the country to move away from the past and look toward the future. I believe that Governor Bush is the past."

Rubio is also aggressively courting other major donors, and by most accounts, impressing with his presentations. He was a hit at a seminar hosted by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, as well as at a recent dinner hosted by Paul Singer, one of Wall Street's most sought-after Republican donors.

In all, Rubio appears a candidate on the rise, but he has already borne witness to how fickle supporters can be and how quickly one can fall from prominence. Just two years ago, it was a far different picture. After backing an immigration overhaul in the Senate, Rubio met a stiff conservative backlash, the severity of which surprised his advisers. His polling numbers plummeted and his name elicited catcalls and boos in his home state.

He has since distanced himself from the Senate immigration bill he helped write -- saying that changes must be done incrementally, starting with securing the country's southern border -- while holding a series of private meetings with Florida tea-party groups to repair relations with activists who provided a critical boost to his 2010 campaign.

His team hopes the image makeover will satisfy conservative critics and blunt the inevitable comparisons to another first-term senator who rose to national prominence with a powerful personal narrative: Barack Obama.

But there's an alternative, similarly plausible future:

Rubio delivers his trademark rhetorical brilliance on Monday night, but the world is still reacting to Clinton's entry into the race a day before. Being overshadowed by a better-funded candidate with a bigger name is a sign of things to come: Behind the scenes, Bush vacuums up Rubio's would-be supporters in Florida and his would-be establishment donors, advisers, and voters nationwide.

Evangelicals give their votes to Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Santorum. And even among the more secular segments of the GOP base, voters can't forgive Rubio for his dalliance with "amnesty" -- a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Rubio keeps giving great speeches, but they can't rise above the noise created by better-funded candidates, and so, though he's speaking powerfully, he's also shouting into the wind. Rubio Nation is an apparition, Rubio Island is the reality, and the once ascendant candidate limps out of the primary and onto the sidelines -- having given away a promising Senate career without ever sniffing a shot at the White House.

The ocean separating Rubio's best-case scenario and his worst -- as well as the plausibility of both of them -- reveals the great risk Rubio is taking with a 2016 run. If things break his way, he can play in any segment of his party. And if they don't, he could just as easily score support from exactly none of them.

Tom DeFrank contributed to this article