Rubio is up, Cruz wobbling, Trump OK as candidates make final Iowa pitches

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida speaks during a town hall meeting Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, in Burlington, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida speaks during a town hall meeting Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, in Burlington, Iowa. AP

Marco Rubio was getting a fresh look from voters, Donald Trump remained defiant and strong, and Ted Cruz was staggered the day after a televised political showdown unlike any other.

Heading into the final weekend before Iowa voters decide whom they want as the nation’s 45th president, Thursday’s unprecedented split-screen GOP events made it clear that the state’s Republican race is a three-way battle.

Trump, who skipped the Des Moines debate and held his own rally honoring veterans, didn’t appear to gain or lose as he continued to defy political convention. While his rivals barnstormed Iowa on Friday, he was in New Hampshire boasting to supporters that he had won the night.

“When you’re not treated properly you have to stick up for your rights, and if I’m your leader we’re going to stick up for the rights of the country,” he said.

Trump’s moves reinforced his stature with his followers, who love his creative ways of upending conventional wisdom, and they further soured him among critics.

Ratings for the debate sank, as he predicted; the debate was the second lowest-rated of the seven Republican debates this campaign. It still drew 12.5 million viewers. Trump didn’t inherit those who looked elsewhere – his event, televised on two rival cable networks, got 3.1 million viewers.

The first Republican debate Aug. 6 drew 24 million viewers. Thursday’s debate attracted 12.5 million.

In Iowa, where Trump has a small lead, voters saw his refusal to debate as unsurprising.

“Trump’s not showing up? You can’t blame him,” said John Ryan 2nd, a Knoxville community college student. “People for him say he stood for something.”

Trump’s opponents got some hope they had a new weapon. When voters caucus Monday night, they’ll first hear brief pitches from each candidate’s supporters. “We’ll focus on the arrogance,” said Craig Lang, a Brooklyn dairy farmer who backs Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Cruz, though, was now a candidate under siege. Opponents charged Thursday that his views on immigration were too accommodating to those in the country illegally. They also cited his inability to get along with Washington colleagues.

Rev. Brian D. Nolder of Pella, IA supported Rand Paul today at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum in Knoxville, IA. Nolder, pastor of Christ the Redeemer church in Paella, said the senator speaks to him as an Evangelical Christian on ma

And he continues to have difficulty projecting warmth. The Rev. Brian Nolder, a pastor at Christ the Redeemer Church in Pella, appreciates Cruz’s religious devotion. But he’s troubled by the senator’s get-tough talk.

“I’m concerned when Republicans say, ‘We’re going to kill ‘em all.’ When he says, ‘I’m a Christian,’ I believe him,” said Nolder. “I wish that would inform his foreign policy views.”

Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, was unfazed. “No hits we’ve taken destabilized what our core message is,” he said. He told a Bloomberg Politics breakfast Friday that Cruz had $19 million available at the beginning of 2016, a strong showing.

Data curated by InsideGov

The main political event Friday in quiet Knoxville, population 7,313, was Paul’s talk to about 60 supporters at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Paul’s support has been lagging, and there’s speculation that unless he pulls a surprise Monday, he could turn his attention to getting re-elected as a U.S. senator from Kentucky.

His backers were keeping an eye on other candidates. They were curious about Rubio, but stopped short of embracing him.

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Rubio, a senator from Florida, has become the favorite of center-right Republicans in this state. He’s had a boost from the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, the state’s most influential media voice.

He was up to 18 percent support in the Marist/NBC/Wall Street Journal Iowa poll Jan. 24 to 26, within striking distance of second-place Cruz at 25 percent. A runner-up finish here would stamp Rubio as the clear alternative to Trump, but first he has to deal with difficult impediments.

“You know how when you call a place for service and you get that recording? That’s what Rubio sounds like,” said Tony Burns, a Pleasantville manufacturing worker.

Bruce Sage, a painter from Lacona, has attended two Rubio events. He watched both the Trump rally and the debate Thursday.

Sage thought Rubio did well and seemed more relaxed, but Sage remained concerned about how the senator broke with his 2013 support of legislation creating a path to citizenship for many immigrants who are already in the U.S. illegally, a point Rubio’s rivals stressed.

“I know where he was, and I just don’t trust him,” Sage said.

The most telling barometer of what could happen? The Marist poll found 61 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers with a candidate preference “strongly supported” their candidate. That leaves a lot of room for changing one’s mind.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid