For the past quarter century, a stock character has been just about ever-present in American politics: the Natural. This figure is young, pragmatic, and charismatic, understood from an exceptionally early age to represent the future of the party, attended by a cult of personality, and enveloped by an atmosphere of light narcissism. The Natural’s origins are humble, and his great asset is emotional intelligence. These supply him with reservoirs of empathy for ordinary life, which he can draw on to make policy seem supple, and politics like a mechanism of human need rather than the maneuvering of interest groups. The Natural is not an ideological figure, and the party’s base is often skeptical of his ascent, while elites insist that he is the compromise that they must make with the future. He will inevitably be compared to John F. Kennedy, though the more exact model is always Bill Clinton, who established the pattern that figures like John Edwards and Sarah Palin have followed. The Natural does not always win, but he always excites: party elites and the media see a winner, and people who don’t regularly vote see a glimpse of the future.
Marco Rubio is obviously the political natural in this race—the candidate who walks off camera in his own Web commercials to the chords of “Purple Rain”—but it took Republican donors and politicians a long time to warm to him as a potential nominee. The Republican establishment is as fragmented as the rest of the American elite, and the Party’s mandarins first spent a hundred and twenty million dollars backing Jeb Bush’s Presidential bid, watched the despised Ted Cruz hire the cutting-edge voter-identification shops, and spread their endorsements around, so muddying the situation that there has been no clear “establishment” candidate at all. Even now, a month before the Iowa caucuses, you could make a case that to halt Donald Trump the Party will send forth Bush, or Chris Christie, or Rubio, or even, depending upon how panicked it becomes, Cruz.
Meanwhile, without raising much money, and while working so quietly that Politico has developed a beat wondering whether he wants the nomination at all, Rubio has become the favorite for the nomination in the betting markets and has moved (in most polls of likely Republican primary voters, in most states) into the top tier of candidates. Polls of all voters find that, among the potential G.O.P. candidates, he has the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton. But the Floridian still trails Trump by so much, both in the national polls and in the early states, that an atmosphere of panic settled around Rubio’s campaign, almost as soon as his candidacy was noticed at all. If Rubio was so great, why couldn’t he win the support of more than twelve per cent of Republican voters? Why was he still speaking to little rooms of retirees in county historical societies when Trump was selling out racetracks and basketball arenas? Theories developed, most of which spotted some weakness in the man himself. Maybe Rubio was lazy, or had alienated too many important people within the Party, or had simply forgotten to hire enough staff in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Washington, Rubio could seem aloof. He missed votes, his relationships with senior politicians and Party leaders were tenuous (for a long time his campaign seemed to depend largely on the financial support of a single South Florida auto dealer), and this made everything more tense, both for the Party, which wants a candidate who could plausibly beat Clinton, and for Washington at large, which wants some end to the nativist Trump/Cruz syndrome. Suddenly, so much depends on Rubio, and yet no one really seems to trust him.
I’ve seen Rubio on the campaign trail several times during the past few months, but when I watched him, last Monday, at a town hall in Rochester, New Hampshire, there was a slightly different atmosphere: the press and county Party chairs had been summoned bedside like consulting hematologists, scrutinizing the candidate to try to figure out where things had gone wrong, searching for evidence of clots.
I saw none. Rubio’s great theme is the global longing to be part of the American middle class, and the heroic human efforts made to join it. This is a specific theme, in that it narrates the immigrant experience of his parents. (His father was an itinerant bartender, his mother a hotel maid and a store clerk.) But it is also a magnificently flexible one, in that it can give emotional depth to a riff about how higher education channels all students to be philosophers rather than welders (because to be an American welder is something much of the globe would love) or to his defense of foreign aid (because the American Dream is not uniquely American). In Rochester, he spoke of his own mother’s dependence on Social Security, to reassure his audience that his reforms wouldn’t leave her in the cold; his Green Beret brother’s bureaucratic battles with the V.A., to underline the necessity of agency reform; his father’s late-night car rides through Las Vegas, pointing out Liberace’s house, and explaining that only in the United States was attainment like this possible.
The fragility and beauty of the middle class, the necessity of the fight to protect it—it was all there. Rubio’s conservatism is not in any major substantive way an update of George W. Bush’s, and if you hated the original you probably won’t love the sequel, which harbors the same instinctive militarism, rigid social conservatism, and gauzy talk of freedom. But Rubio has President Obama’s sharp, outsider eye for human longing and suffering: his talent is in giving stray, chaotic conservative interests an emotional coherence. Walking away, I had the same feeling I’ve had each time I’ve seen him: the man is a natural.
For the moment this talent is devoted, a bit awkwardly, to internecine political combat. Rubio is best when he is engaged in aspirational summoning; he has little instinct for the shiv. The Rubio campaign seems to have marked out Cruz as its great rival, and Cruz—who has made the predictably savvy and cynical decision to pander to Trump so that he can position himself to capture the mogul’s voters—has his sights on Rubio. So now these two men—sons of Cuban immigrants, born within six months of each other—are in a close combat. The comedy of this combat is that the politics of the Republican primary more or less forbid Rubio from making the obvious case against Cruz—that he is too conservative to be elected President—and so Rubio has gamely fought to tarnish Cruz as an “isolationist hawk,” noting that taking an isolationist line during the Tea Party ascendancy, as the Texan did, before insisting that he would “carpet bomb” ISIS until “the sand glows,” as Cruz has done recently, suggests someone who is fundamentally not serious about being President. It’s a sound argument. But it would probably have more resonance if the basic orientation of the Republican base was not also to ignore the rest of the world until it was time to bomb them.
What does being a natural get you in the Republican primary right now? Politics has a different emotional orientation than it once did: different things are required. Obama’s strategists always insisted, in a way that sometimes bordered on pandering, that their campaign was not about their unique candidate but about the volunteers, the crowds that could see their own aspirations in his. “I know you didn’t do it for me,” Obama said, in Grant Park, just after his election. The effort was to reduce the distance between the candidate and voters so that he did not seem simply like a wind-up toy sent out to win debates and the election but like an avatar of—as Obama himself might put it—their own hopes and dreams.
There aren’t many hopes or dreams in Cruz’s candidacy, or Trump’s—there’s mostly an angry insistence that the country can remain static, that its greatness lies not in where it is going but where it has been. But they are avatars of their supporters, as Obama sought to be. Trump has made himself the image of the menaced, bristling white working class. Cruz has channelled the feeling that conservative outsiders have been betrayed by their own representatives in Washington. Who among Republicans sees herself in Rubio? He was, after all, on the wrong side of the great emotional schism of the past few years, over immigration; he has always cut a lonely figure. Not even the nearing prospect of Clinton in the White House has seemed to inspire Republicans to abandon the internal quarrels that have dominated the Party for five years: in debates, the anti-Clinton rhetoric has been curiously anodyne. In introducing Rubio on Monday, in Rochester, a former Republican national committeewoman said about the candidate that his policy positions were the most studied, his charisma obvious, and his chances to beat Clinton higher than the rest. That was about it. It was a case from the head, not the heart, and it hinged—as the case for Rubio, and all political naturals, always does—on the promise that he would win.
The primary is now in its endurance phase. While Rubio was speaking in Rochester, Christie was on a four-day, nine-city bus tour of the state that had begun with an appearance at Al’s Automotive and Truck Service Center, in Exeter. (Whatever Christie is getting from this experience, simple human pleasure is probably not it.) This is the moment when the skills of a political natural, pressed one-to-one with voters, are expected to vault him forward. But not every election is the same. The most important question about Rubio isn’t whether his skills are good enough, his position savvy enough, his tactics sufficiently studied and mapped. It feels both more elemental and further from the candidate himself: whether Republican voters are still caught up in their complicated and deeply felt internal fights over authenticity and identity, or whether they are ready to set all that aside and select a candidate who might plausibly capture the White House. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Rubio. The questions are whether the character of the Natural carries as much power as it once did, and in a more ideological time, how badly Republican voters actually want to win.