Marco Rubio is the betting markets' top-pick to win the Republican presidential nomination, and he's polling the best among the candidates most closely aligned with the party's establishment. But with the first votes less than a month away in the primary contest, his campaign is in search of an early victory with which to stake his claim to that front-runner status.
"Rubio's biggest concern is: Where do I get an early win?" says GOP strategist Ford O'Connell. "That is what is keeping them up at night."
The answer is looking increasingly like Nevada. The problem is that Rubio's currently trailing badly in the polls there, and his best shot at early momentum is an uphill climb.
Of course, other campaigns are getting the same idea. Trump and Cruz, whose campaign is ramping up its efforts in Nevada, both lead Rubio in the latest poll in the state. Polling in Nevada has been sparse, and it's notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of caucuses with statewide polls. But the numbers in the latest survey show Rubio 22 points behind Trump and 9 points behind Cruz—hardly a front-runner position.
Cruz, who is currently the favorite to win Iowa, is banking on the heavily Southern Super Tuesday states to win the nomination—a strategy all the more likely if he wins Nevada. "Cruz wants to have two wins underneath his belt" ahead of Super Tuesday, says O'Connell. "If he can sway evangelicals away from the Trump phenomenon going into the South, he's in much better shape."
For months, Cruz has been talking about the federal government's massive land holdings in the West, an issue that, as O'Connell points out, is a big deal in Nevada. And, like Rubio, he has enlisted prominent Mormons to help him win over that demographic.