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Marco Rubio’s Iowa crisscross approach bends caucus campaign norm

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Marco Rubio is all over the map in Iowa. Quite literally.

Having spent little time in the state’s rural Christian conservative northwest, the Republican presidential candidate dropped in to Sioux County for the first time last week, then bounced across the state two days later to speak with some of Iowa’s more fiscally conservative voters in the east.

“I’m going to trust that he knows what he’s doing,” state Rep. John Wills, who supports Rubio, said after his campaign stop at the Christian Dordt College in GOP-rich Sioux Center. “I hope he gets the chance to get up here again. Northwest Iowa is where you win.”

Rubio began an uninterrupted nine-day run Saturday ahead of Iowa’s lead-off caucuses next Monday. His itinerary includes college towns, larger cities and rural outposts.

After months of promising that his campaign was on the verge of ramping up in early-voting states, Rubio appears to be following through in the Iowa homestretch.

He dismisses the notion that he’s changing in the 11th hour to play catch-up with rival Ted Cruz, who has dedicated significant time and resources toward campaigning across the state. Rubio has focused more on Des Moines and the state’s other urban areas.

Rather, “it’s an indication that the caucuses are eight days away,” Rubio said Saturday during a campaign stop in Indianola.

In the chess game of early voting, Rubio needs to finish in Iowa ahead of mainstream GOP rivals such as  former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. If he does, undecided voters in the upcoming contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina could take notice.

Despite the scattershot appearance of Rubio’s schedule, a pattern of building toward caucus day was beginning to take shape over the weekend as he drew large, diverse and engaged crowds, picked up endorsements from some of Iowa’s larger newspapers and appeared Monday with the state’s freshman U.S. senator, Republican Joni Ernst.

“He knows what it is to keep our country safe from the threats that are out there,” Ernst, an Iraq War veteran, said of her 44-year-old Senate colleague. She called him “near and dear to my heart.”

Ernst’s glowing introduction echoed formal endorsements of younger, Republicans elected to Congress in the past decade. Rubio described as “young, strong conservative leaders,” those who have campaigned with him, including Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, and South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem.

“I feel good where that is going to lead,” Rubio said of his campaign on Monday. “As soon as we’re done here, we’re going to head to New Hampshire and do as well as we can there.”

Until now, some Iowa GOP officials — among them, people who are backing Rubio or are remaining neutral — have been perplexed by his Iowa approach.

The caucuses are far different from primary elections, and require successful campaigns to identify individual supporters, stay in touch and communicate with them about how they can be involved and ultimately attend their local precinct meetings.

“The critique or allegation has been that (Rubio’s campaign is) not building an organization,” said John Stineman, an Iowa Republican consultant who is not affiliated with any campaign.

“He’s not spent as much time in western or northwest Iowa as a traditional Iowa campaign,” said Gwen Ecklund, Crawford County GOP chairwoman.

Instead, Rubio has frequently visited Sioux City, the metro hub of northwest Iowa, but a far cry from the socially conservative counties that surround it where the more clearly evangelical candidate Rick Santorum won in the 2012 caucuses.

Cruz, who has led in some recent Iowa GOP polls, has visited them all, evidenced by red signs, reading “Choose Cruz” that mark the snowy banks along the two-lane farm roads of Sioux County.

Still, Rubio drew 600 to his event at the Dordt College union on a recent, bitterly cold night. He had drawn a smaller audience to the Christian college two weeks earlier, when students were away for winter break.

Two days after his Sioux County event, Rubio was 370 miles east, speaking to about 500 on a Monday night in Bettendorf, part of the more moderate Quad Cities metro area, where 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won during the 2012 caucuses.

In the days ahead, Rubio has an equally demanding schedule, beginning Monday in the Des Moines area with little letup, except for Thursday’s GOP debate in that city.

Stineman said activities behind the scenes could fill any gaps.

Much of Rubio’s voter identification has been digital — through social media and email.

“It’s happening in a way we’re not used to,” said former state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, who is not working for a campaign.

Rubio is also getting organizational help from an unconventional source.

Conservative Solutions, the super PAC that supports Rubio, is calling potential Rubio supporters, collecting information about them and directing them to the Iowa Republican Party’s website to find their caucus locations.

Stineman said he had received such calls and follow-up information. While a spokesman for the group said it was conducting some organizational functions aimed at benefiting Rubio in the caucuses, he declined to elaborate.

It’s a new role for these groups, which can, unlike federally regulated campaigns, take unlimited contributions but have until now largely used their money on advertisements.

“Rubio’s team seems to be operating off of a new Iowa Caucus playbook,” Strawn said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at

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