Marco Rubio's path to the Republican nomination goes through the suburbs of places like Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Minnesota is one of 11 states that vote one week from Tuesday. This Tuesday afternoon, the Florida senator will campaign there. Though it's a caucus and not a primary, which benefits Ted Cruz, it could be the first contest Rubio wins.
Preparing for Super Tuesday, Rubio is focusing heavily on the vote-rich metropolitan areas around Denver, Atlanta, Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham and Boston. Virginia also votes next week, and Rubio backers believe he can outperform Cruz and Trump in population centers there.
Even if he loses the popular vote in these states to front-runner Donald Trump, Rubio might still emerge with a lot of delegates - and momentum - going into the higher-stakes, winner-take-all races that begin on March 15.
Internally, the campaign calls this "The Ankeny Strategy." In the run up to the Iowa caucuses, rival campaigns mocked the Rubio operation for being so obsessed with Ankeny. They joked that it felt like Rubio was running to be mayor of the Des Moines suburb. His headquarters was there, and his state chairman represents the city in the state Senate. But it paid off: Rubio's surprisingly strong third place finish in Iowa was possible because he ran up his margin in Polk County.
Something similar happened Saturday in South Carolina, where Rubio won the two most populous counties (those that include Columbia and Charleston) by appealing to suburban Republicans. Obviously he did not just campaign in the vote-rich suburbs, but he mined them for votes.
"There are Ankeny's all over the country," Rubio deputy campaign manager Rich Beeson said in an interview last night as he boarded a plane. "Name the state, and there's an Ankeny in that state."
Next week will offer the biggest test yet of whether "The Ankeny Strategy" can get Rubio the GOP nod. Unlike the early states, where the campaign could organize heavily, the race now turns increasingly on earned media. Rank-and-file Republican voters in Minnesota report that they've received few mailers and seen even fewer ads. There's relatively little local media coverage of the race.
Sadly, there has been no good polling of Minnesota. A survey last month from the Star Tribune, conducted by Mason Dixon but with a ridiculously small sample of only 236 registered voters, suggested a toss-up: Rubio at 23 percent, Cruz at 21 percent and Trump at 18 percent.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Rubio this week, was able to win twice in the blue state by appealing to the same kinds of voters who now seem poised to move in Rubio's direction. "He is no doubt conservative but his message is also hopeful and positive in a way that would be well-received in the suburbs," Pawlenty, who was a city councilman in the suburb of Eagan before joining the state legislature, told the 202.
Rubio has won the backing of several other elected officials of the Pawlenty mold in Minnesota, including Reps. John Kline (who represents the suburbs south of the Twin Cities) and Erik Paulsen (who represents those to the west.) "Rubio is the best choice to unite our party [and] win in November," Paulsen said last night. Norm Coleman, who had supported Jeb Bush, threw his support to Rubio within an hour of the former Florida governor dropping out Saturday night.
John Hinderaker, an influential conservative blogger who backs Rubio, explained that Twin Cities suburbs like Edina and Eagan were once reliably red, but they've become much harder to win in the fall. (Richard Nixon was the last Republican to carry Minnesota in a general election.)
"Marco is the kind of candidate who could do well in these traditionally Republican areas that are now swing areas," Hinderaker explained this week as he commuted home to the St. Paul suburb of Apple Valley from his day job as a lawyer downtown. "My wife and daughters love Rubio. They can't stand Ted Cruz. There's a lot of people like that. . . . I think Marco is conservative enough to appeal to hardcore Republicans, but he's got a little bit of a broader appeal that will play well with suburban women."
To be sure, the suburbs in the general election and in the Republican caucuses are very different places. For example, Dakota County (where Pawlenty hails from) will be a swing district in November but it will be quite conservative next week. So Rubio needs to sell "electability" without sacrificing his conservative bona fides. Rubio has shown that he is a gifted communicator who can thread that needle. Unlike Cruz or Trump, he has proven (by winning statewide in Florida) that he can communicate red messages in purple and blue places -- without scaring people.
It also bears mentioning that John Kasich is still fighting hard for this same turf, as he tries to stay viable for contests in Michigan and Ohio later in March. Tuesday the Ohio governor is in two towns north of Atlanta: Kennesaw and Sandy Springs. This week he campaigned in Virginia.
Rubio is also targeting the Richmond area. His super PAC, Conservative Solutions, is the only GOP entity that has booked time in Virginia so far, according to a source tracking the air war. Their buy begins Tuesday and runs through March 1. Richmond gets a pro-Rubio message into suburban Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover. You might call those the Ankeny's of the Commonwealth.
• 02/23/16: Trump seen as losing South Carolina debate .