COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – For Jay Schnider, Donald Trump is “too brash,” while Dr. Ben Carson is “too timid.” Maybe Sen. Ted Cruz? “He makes me a little nervous,” the gas and oil worker who lives in Council Bluffs said.
Enter the goldilocks candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio.
In the wake of a strong debate performance by the Florida senator and as other candidates falter, Rubio is gaining steam as many Iowans say he feels just right -- the "Goldilocks" candidate who is not too hot, not too cold.
“He’s kinda like right in the middle -- he might be just the right guy,” Schnider said while waiting to see Rubio at the Hilton Garden Inn in Council Bluffs, where more than 300 supporters packed a small ballroom.
Walking out of the ballroom with a big grin after the hour-long event, Schnider told MSNBC he now planned to caucus for Rubio on Monday night. “I thought it was fantastic. He swayed me -- I just told him that myself!” he said.
Rubio’s rise appears to be coming at the expense of Cruz and Carson, the candidates directly in front and behind him, respectively. Cruz seemed at the start of the week likely to rival national front-runner Trump in the state’s kingmaker caucuses, but he paled in comparison to Rubio in the Thursday night debate.
With Trump boycotting the debate amid a beef with Fox News, Cruz was left in center stage facing many of the attacks from his lower-polling rivals; in the spotlight, he faltered. His jokes fell flat, and he struggled to explain his past stance on immigration; the next day, he awoke to a headline declaring his performance a "rough night" in the Des Moines Register. Perhaps in a nod to the threat, he launched an attack ad targeting Rubio.
In the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll before the Iowa caucuses, Rubio gained 3 points, moving into a comfortable lead above Carson, while Trump overtook Cruz, who dropped down slightly, though his likeability and respectability rating was strong.
Connie Issacson, 60, said a big reason she likes Rubio more than Cruz is that he’s just “more likeable.”
“It’s not that Cruz isn’t, it’s just that the media and the portrayal of him – or even Trump [who said] 'he’s nasty guy,' -- he’s not necessarily a nasty guy,” she said, but the reputation persists.
It’s a sentiment the campaign seems to be capitalizing on: Rubio is loose and comfortable on the trail, cracking jokes and leaving the crowd in giggles. It drives a stark contrast from Cruz.
In hopes of continuing Rubio's rise, his campaign will air a 30-minute special with clips from town halls across the state over the weekend, signaling that they feel the candidate’s message and personality are the best ways for him to woo the crowd.
Above all, Rubio is emphasizing that he believes he’s the candidate who can win -- in the final hours of campaigning, it’s a powerful message.
“If I’m our nominee, we are going to win, we are going to beat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders if I’m the nominee,” he said today in Council Bluffs. “We will beat them first because we’re going to unite the party and conservative movement -- we can’t win if we’re divided. Now, of course, we have to go through this process where we debate each other, but we have to keep in mind and remember that this is not about beating up other Republicans.”
Across the board, Iowans said they liked a number of canidates, but felt Rubio could go the long haul.
"I think we have many good, very knowledgeable people running, but I think he would be perhaps the person who could take on anybody, just because he’s knowledgeable and very personable," Marilyn Knauss, 69, said.
Trump's "not presidential," the retired nurse told MSNBC. "I liked Ben Carson, he’s a wonderful person, but I’m not sure he can really pull people in. I think Ted Cruz is good, but Marco’s my favorite."
Richard Deitering from next-door Omaha, Nebraska, can’t vote for a few more months, but he echoed Schnider’s sentiment.
“When Trump came out and was saying things we were thinking -- I sort of jumped on that wagon for a while, but I’ve gotten worn out by his attacks on people,” he said. “Rubio’s always been my No. 2, and I think he did very well in the last debate.
Wife Joette Deitering agreed.
“He has the right combination – experience without too much experience, youth going for him, grasp of the issues and the policies that need to be changed in this country. And I think he has a natural, certain level -- I don’t know a better word than class. He just seems to have what we'd want to elect in a president."