Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio waits to speak at a caucus site on Feb. 1, 2016 in Clive, Iowa.
Photo by Paul Sancya/AP

Marco Rubio’s Iowa balancing act

A stronger-than-expected third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses was, for Marco Rubio, the culmination of a careful balancing act.

All week, his campaign meticulously managed expectations, juggling the conflicting demands of setting expectations and projecting strength on the campaign trail. Throughout the weekend, advisers and Rubio himself refused to predict anything beyond third place, insisting Cruz’s formidable ground game still had him in line for first place, and Rubio was aiming for third.

“We have some wind at our backs right now and that’s great,” Rubio adviser Todd Harris told NBC News over the weekend, “but at the same time we’re competing with the greatest showman on earth on the one hand and arguably the greatest ground game in Iowa political history on the other.

“We still feel very good about things, but the reality is, that what we’re hoping to do is exactly what we’ve been shooting for for the last couple of months, which is a strong third place finish.”

So when Rubio finished the night just one point behind Donald Trump and five behind winner Ted Cruz, with 23 percent support — a number that far outpaced polls of the state, which had him in the mid-teens, on average — it was viewed as a remarkable and unexpected feat that shattered all expectations set for the candidate this week.

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On the stump, Rubio was meticulous in managing his message, playing up his faith for much of the week — including during the debate, when he told the crowd that Jesus Christ was “the only Lord and Savior” — but returning to a more secular-minded focus on the Constitution and his vision for a “New American Century” this past weekend.

And he positioned himself both as a hopeful, positive candidate, but one who shares voters’ anger with the status quo. He also isn’t afraid to hit back at an attacking opponent.

On the stump on Sunday, Rubio dismissed attacks from his opponents as “fine” and pivoted back to his pitch as the one candidate that can beat Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders next November. But on national and local television, he railed against Cruz for what he called a “misleading” attack ad and “disturbing” mailer, cutting a starkly different profile from the one on the campaign stage.

The pivot back to a more hopeful message on the stump in the final weekend, coupled with a week of positive coverage for the surging candidate, seemed to help clinch him much of his support. Rubio led by 5 points with the 35 percent of voters who decided within the last few days, according to exit polling.

Exit polling also showed that his electability pitch resonated — he held a 20-point lead among the 21 percent of voters who said that picking the candidate who “can win in November” was most important to them.

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And he was able to match Trump’s support among Evangelicals, which made up 62 percent of the electorate, while he only narrowly trailed him with all other religions, which made up 38 percent of the electorate.

Rubio’s strategy of dropping in and out of the state for visits only in the campaign’s targeted counties — which drew criticism early on for seeming piecemeal — helped him drive out bigger-than-expected turnout in some of his key counties, particularly the suburbs of Des Moines. Where Rubio was once ridiculed as the “Mayor of Ankeny” for spending so much time in the suburban Des Moines area, he ultimately eked out a win over Cruz in that county by just 500 votes, making it one of a handful of counties where Rubio pulled ahead by just a few hundred votes.

It was a good night for Rubio — his advisers crowed that the GOP presidential primary had now become a “three-man race” and argued the finish boosted Rubio’s main pitch to voters: That he’s the only viable alternative to Cruz and Trump.

“If you don’t want Ted Cruz or Donald Trump as the nominee, you better get on board with Marco Rubio,” Rubio Communications Director Alex Conant said on MSNBC.

And strategists for multiple opposing campaigns acknowledged privately on Monday night that they were surprised at Rubio’s strength in Iowa, and none would offer a decisive line of attack that could seriously blunt his momentum him with any confidence.

But they were more than ready to try. A hint of the heavy oncoming expected this week came on Tuesday when, fresh off a 10th-place finish in Iowa and speaking to reporters at his campaign headquarters in New Hampshire, Chris Christie ridiculed Rubio as “the boy in the bubble” and demanded that the media ask him tough questions.

“It’s time for him to man up and step up and stop letting all of his handlers write his speeches and handle it because that’s what you have to do for someone who has never done anything in your life,” he said. 

This article first appeared on NBCNews.com

Iowa and Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio's Iowa balancing act