Is Marco Rubio the Great GOP Hope, or Dope?

The Florida senator would be a great general election candidate and president. Or would he, since he’s such a bad primary candidate?

03.07.16 5:01 AM ET

If the recent “Super Saturday” elections are a sign, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is in deep trouble.

To be sure, a victory in Florida on March 15 would give him momentum, but the Catch-22 is that it’s hard to win Florida without momentum (his Sunday win in Puerto Rico was fine but isn’t exactly a big mo-shifter). And if Rubio loses his home state, which is entirely possible, not only would it spell doom for his presidential chances, it would also serve as a major embarrassment.

Rubio’s chances seem increasingly slim. At best, a Rubio victory in Florida would prevent Donald Trump from garnering the 1,237 delegates needed to become the nominee. This might put Rubio in a position to be a player in a contested convention fight.

It’s kind of amazing we’re in this situation.

I say that because I have long believed that Rubio is a once-in-a-generation political talent who could sell conservative philosophy to 21st-century Americans who don’t know they’re conservative yet. He has all the ingredients that could make him a transformational political leader, in the vein of a Ronald Reagan or a John F. Kennedy. If only he could win the primary.

He hasn’t been in Washington forever (he was elected to the U.S. Senate in just 2010, when he defeated an establishment Republican incumbent), and a close look at his voting record clearly demonstrates that he’s a bona fide conservative. Rubio’s ability to deliver an eloquent speech is unrivaled, and his personal biography as the son of an immigrant is an inspirational testimony about the American Dream.

The problem, it seems, is that almost all of the attributes that might make Rubio a great conservative president don’t really help him win a Republican primary. Part of the reason Rubio could be a great conservative president is that his politics are conservative, but his temperamental “feel” is more moderate. He is optimistic in a party (and during an era) when indignation is more in vogue.

Rubio has the capacity to govern from the right, while presenting it in a manner that would come across as palatable and irenic to Americans who aren’t conservative and don’t vote in Republican primaries. For obvious reasons, this gets you nowhere in a Republican primary.

This raises an interesting question: Is there any correlation between enduring a Republican primary and being able to win a general election? Or could there even be an inverse relationship?

I’m not sure. On one hand, it’s possible that handpicking a candidate is about as effective as naming one’s own successor. It usually doesn’t work. I think Rubio has the potential to defeat Hillary Clinton and to be a very good president, but I could be wrong. At this point, I’m like the mom who wants to set her little girl up with the perfect young man she just met. But such an “arranged” marriage might not work; mom might not really know best. Still, not to sound paternalistic, but it’s hard to sit by and watch people you love make the mistake of their lives by marrying the wrong person. This is especially true when the perfect young gentleman is right under their nose.

Then again, maybe Rubio’s inability to win a GOP primary exposes a fatal flaw. It’s possible that enduring a primary campaign tests someone’s character, toughness, and mettle. Campaigns face scandals and crises and hardships, and the ability to overcome these things does tell us something about you. Maybe the voters know more than I do? Maybe there’s something bad about Rubio that the wisdom of the crowds can sniff out?

This theory argues that, by definition, the best candidate always wins the primary.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

This strikes me as dubious. Some of the attributes required for winning a primary seem utterly arbitrary. Let’s suppose you happen to be terrifically popular in Iowa and New Hampshire. You would have a decided advantage, even though this accounts for just a small fraction of the votes that would matter in a general election.

Other important factors may have little or no correlation to actually governing. The ability to organize a caucus, for example, might speak to your ability to win a general election, but does it demonstrate the kind of leadership and strategic thinking and organizational ability that would come in handy in the Situation Room? You’d be hard-pressed to argue that it does.

It may well be that the most talented conservative of a generation can’t win a Republican primary contest. And the interesting thing is that a year from now, he might be out of politics altogether.

Here’s hoping there’s plenty of fish in the sea.

Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor at the Daily Caller and author of the new book “Too Dumb to Fail.”