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Rubio hedging bets on Iowa, but says he'll 'do what it takes to win'

The Florida senator, who's been accused of neglecting the Hawkeye State, said he'll "do what it takes to win" there, but avoided predicting victory.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) shakes hands with supporters after speaking at a campaign event at the Maintenance Shop at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Dec. 10, 2015. (Photo by Scott Morgan/Reuters)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) shakes hands with supporters after speaking at a campaign event at the Maintenance Shop at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Dec. 10, 2015.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Amid questions about his commitment to Iowa, Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday hedged his bets on whether he’d promise a victory in the Hawkeye State—but insisted “we're gonna do what it takes to win.”

“We’ve been here a significant amount of time and we'll continue—we're here today. We'll be back next week and we’ll continue to come more often,” Rubio told reporters following a campaign stop in West Des Moines. “We're gonna do what it takes to win and we feel confident about our plan.”

But when a reporter noted Rubio hadn’t yet stated outright that he’s confident he’ll win the state, Rubio demurred.

“Well, I want to do well everywhere we go. I’m not a psychic,” he said.

In the Real Clear Politics Iowa polling tracker, Rubio is in fourth place with 13.7 percent support, behind Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson.  

The comments came on Rubio’s first stop this month in the all-important early voting state, and they follow a report from National Review chronicling the “anger” some Iowa operatives feel that they haven’t seen more of the Florida senator.

Indeed, as early as October, local GOP activists and operatives told NBC News they wondered why Rubio hadn’t been campaigning harder in the state, which votes on February 1 of next year. At that time, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant promised, “you’re going to be seeing Marco there a lot over the next four months.”

Over the past two months, he’s visited the state just five times, though Conant points out that’s not significantly fewer than Cruz, who’s made seven trips to Iowa since October 1.

But when Rubio is in the state, his schedule contrast starkly with Cruz’s. The Texas senator made seven stops in one day in Iowa just a few weeks ago, while Rubio has tended to hold a smattering of events, largely in the same few urban centers.

That may change, however. Rubio’s campaign just made public the details of two campaign events in Iowa next week, one in Ankeny the day after Tuesday’s GOP primary debate, and one in Dubuque on Friday. 

On Wednesday, he was campaigning hard, scheduling three back-to-back stops across the state before jetting back to Florida for fundraisers. At the first event, a town hall hosted by Concerned Veterans for America, Rubio rolled out his policy to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, which included opening the department to more transparency, making it easier to fire those workers who were doing a poor job, and allowing veterans to take their benefits outside the VA system. His brother, Mario Rubio, a former Green Beret, joined him at the event. 

Rubio made a brief stop at Iowa State University, delivering his standard stump speech to a standing-room-only crowd of students. And then he jetted out to a meet-and-greet event in Iowa City, where about 250 supporters heard him again hit on his tried and true campaign themes.

Rubio’s campaign on Wednesday pushed back hard against questions about his operation in the state, noting he has representatives in all of Iowa’s 99 counties and will be rolling out endorsements in the coming weeks. 

“On February 1, no one will question our competing in Iowa,” Conant told NBC News.

It seems, too, that Rubio is leaning heavily on television in Iowa — a central focus of the senator’s campaign strategy, and a medium his advisers believe serves him well. A campaign ad-buying source tells NBC News that Rubio’s campaign has reserved $5 million in Iowa airtime through Feb. 1, and spent around $1 million over the past two weeks there.

He may also be counting on national media appearances. “More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa," campaign manager Terry Sullivan told the New York Times recently. "Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t go to Iowa.”

Some Iowans at Rubio’s Iowa City event weren’t fazed by his campaign schedule. Erin Lewis, an undecided mother of two from Iowa City, said: “With all the available media out there, you can learn about any candidate whether or not they’re in your backyard.”

Lewis said that while it was understandable to criticize Rubio for not making more appearances in the state, “because we’re so used to having all candidates at our doorstep…most other folks around the country don’t have that opportunity, so I don’t think that’s really fair.”

And the Rubio loyalists had no issues at all. “As long as he gets his message out, I don’t care," Alan Welch, a 62-year-old Coralville resident, said. “Save money on the gas. We’ve heard the speech. And he’s here today."