Marco Rubio's Difficult Path to the Nomination

The Florida senator turned in a strong showing in Iowa, but his road to victory in the Republican primary remains strewn with obstacles.

Paul Sancya / AP

Donald Trump failed to win Iowa. Marco Rubio exceeded expectations. If you’re a member of the Republican inner party—a donor, a congressional leader, a leading lobbyist—you woke up Tuesday to the best morning in at least six months. Now here’s all that needs to go right for you to continue to enjoy your mornings.

First, Rubio must perform strongly in New Hampshire next week. Even more importantly, all the other candidates you used to like must perform poorly. If, hypothetically, John Kasich or Chris Christie rather than Marco Rubio finishes a strong second to Donald Trump, Rubio’s future as the Great Establishment Hope would suddenly look a lot less hopeful.

Then, in the days after New Hampshire votes, all the other candidates you used to like must rapidly withdraw gracefully from the field. No more calling Rubio “the boy in the bubble!” Jeb Bush’s people, in particular must somehow stifle their resentment and rage, and refrain from spending their remaining $50 million of super-PAC funds to remind South Carolina voters of Rubio’s past (and likely future) support for higher levels of immigration.

Next, in a year when the Republican base is seething against Republican leadership, you must find some way to convince those voters that the tens of millions in campaign donations and super-PAC dollars about to flow to Rubio don’t mark him out as the new “establishment man,” even though, of course, it’s true.

You must also somehow persuade Donald Trump to exit the race quietly, rather than smash all the scenery on his way off the stage. Every time he attacks Rubio (and you!) for planning to leave Obamacare beneficiaries dying in the streets, he’s providing material for devastating Hillary Clinton attack ads in the fall. Somebody has to cajole and coax Trump into feeling that the real winners are those who know when to quit.

On the other hand, you must find some way not to overpay to keep Donald Trump happy. That speech he’s going to want to make at the Republican convention in Cleveland? You’ll want to vet it, right? How?

Finally, you’re going to need a plan for Rubio himself. He’s convinced you that he’s a candidate of deep foreign-policy wisdom. That self-presentation may be tough to sustain in a general-election race against Hillary Clinton, especially when she pounds home the message that a vote for Rubio is a vote for more wars in the Middle East and millions of health-insurance cancellations at home. What’s he going to say in reply? Personal biography only goes so far in presidential politics, otherwise Bob Dole and John McCain would have completed two terms each.

So there’s your task. It amounts ironically to the same remedy that President Obama prescribed in 2012: hoping that the Republican Party’s ideological and emotional fever will break. His hopes were dashed. Better luck to yours!