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National Politics|By Amy Walter, March 18, 2015

For the last couple of weeks there’s been plenty of buzz about an imminent Marco Rubio “Moment.” As one non-affiliated GOP strategist remarked to me the other day, “Rubio is simply the best natural athlete on the field.” He’s great on the stump, comfortable on the trail and confident around the press. But, with another bi-lingual, pro-immigration reform Floridian in the race as well as plenty of other Tea Party types to compete with, Rubio lacks an obvious “lane” to himself. Moreover, where Walker’s reputation as a union-buster helps endear him to the GOP faithful, Rubio’s push for comprehensive immigration reform earned him plenty of scorn from conservatives. So, can Rubio get his moment? And, if he does, can he make it last?

While many talk of the GOP race as a battle between the establishment and non-establishment forces, the winner of the nomination is ultimately the one who can prove to be acceptable to the four or five significant factions of the party: establishment, Tea Party/Libertarian, social conservative and internationalist/defense hawk. The winner is the “uniter,” not the divider.

Jeb Bush is the strongest in the establishment space, while Rand Paul dominates the Libertarian column. The Tea Party, social conservative and internationalist slots are pretty crowded and lack an obvious frontrunner. However, only Rubio and Scott Walker start out as suitable to the entire spectrum. Among the twelve GOP “constituencies” identified by the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Walker and Rubio are the only candidates who rank high in all twelve. Walker ranks first among men, conservatives, Tea Party and Gun Rights voters. Rubio, meanwhile, comes in first among women, very conservative voters, independent/Dems, and those who supported Romney in 2012.

Top Five Candidates Ranked By Percent Who Say They Would Support That Candidate In A Primary

Candidate Men Women GOP Ind/Dem Tea Party
Bush5th4th2nd--
Walker1st5th4th2nd1st
Rubio2nd1st3rd1st2nd
Paul4th3rd5th4th4th
Huckabee3rd2nd1st--

Candidate Very conservative Conservative Moderate/liberal ’12 voted for Romney ’12 voted for other candidate Values Voters Gun rights
Bush--1st2nd-4th-
Walker5th1stTied 5th4th2nd2nd1st
Rubio1st2nd4th1st3rd3rd2nd
Paul-4th3rd-1st-3rd
Huckabee-3rd2nd3rd5th1st4th
* NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll – March 2015
Yet, if Rubio’s got such obvious advantages, why is he stuck in the low single digits while Walker has become a “co-frontrunner” with Bush? First, don’t underestimate the power of Walker’s profile as a conservative governor of a blue state. Furthermore, for a party that’s ambivalent at best about the idea of the idea of a “legacy” candidate like Bush, Walker’s understated Midwestern-ism is appealing.

Rubio backers, however, aren’t worried about his low standing in the polls. If anything, they like where he sits today. Rubio gets to go about his work without the same level of scrutiny that Walker and Bush get. They also see Rubio as a candidate who can endure for the long-haul thanks to his natural political talent. Where Bush struggles on the stump, Rubio shines. Where Walker fails to engage, Rubio connects emotionally.

So, when can we expect to see Rubio’s poll numbers catch up with his potential? A high-profile stumble by Bush or Walker could give the Florida Senator an opening. The debates could be another place for Rubio to break out. His allies, meanwhile, aren’t convinced they need those things to happen for him to succeed. Instead, they say, he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing and the voters will catch on to his appeal.