- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

LACONIA, N.H. — New Hampshire voters are giving Sen. Marco Rubio a second look after his surprisingly strong third-place finish in Iowa this week, but the first-term U.S. senator is still struggling to overcome his past support for granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Voters searching for an alternative to Sen. Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump, the top two finishers in Iowa, see Mr. Rubio as a viable option, confirming what pollsters have long found — that Mr. Rubio is a popular second choice.

That could be bad news for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey, the so-called establishment candidates, who were hoping to emerge as the top anti-Trump and anti-Cruz picks.

“This morning, if you had asked me, or yesterday, I probably would have said Chris Christie or Carly [Fiorina],” said Grace Freije, a 63-year-old teacher from Manchester, New Hampshire. “Now that we see the top tier, are we going to vote for Marco so he will go over the top of Trump and Cruz? Yes.”

Brad Morrow, 61, of Bow, said he had been eyeing Mr. Bush but is now leaning toward Mr. Rubio.

“As you can tell by the early stages and the percentages in this [race], I certainly don’t want to waste my vote [on Bush],” Mr. Morrow said.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump leads in New Hampshire; Marco Rubio moves into second place: poll

“I went to Bush’s event here in the state, and I like him,” said Peter Weeman, 72, of Concord. “I think he’s great, but he doesn’t have the traction that Rubio is gaining.”

He said, “What happened in Iowa says, ‘Hey, everybody, take a look at this guy.’ “

There was some good news for Mr. Bush. He placed second in a Harper Polling survey behind Mr. Trump by a 31 to 14 percent margin, followed by Mr. Kasich, 12 percent, and Mr. Rubio, 10, percent and Mr. Cruz, 9 percent. Mr. Christie came in at 6 percent.

Wednesday marked the first full day of campaigning for Mr. Rubio since Iowa, and he made the case that he gives Republicans the best chance to unify conservatives, expand the party and defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in the general election.

“We cannot win if we are divided,” Mr. Rubio said. “If we are still fighting with each other in August and in September and in October, nothing would make the Democrats happier. We must nominate someone who can unify this party quickly if we have any chance of winning.”

The other candidates took aim at Mr. Rubio. The Bush camp ran a full-page ad in the state’s largest newspaper touting how Florida legislative leaders backed Mr. Bush over Mr. Rubio.

“As former and current Speakers of the House of Representatives in Florida (a position Senator Rubio once held), we are urging you to vote for Governor Jeb Bush,” the ad said. “While Senator Rubio is a tremendous political talent, he is not the best choice to serve as Commander-in-Chief. We like and admire Marco, but as individuals who have personally witnessed the leadership of both candidates, we are unequivocal in our belief that Governor Bush is the best choice to be our next president.”

It remains to be seen whether the ad will slow Mr. Rubio’s momentum.

Since Iowa, he has won the endorsement of Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and raised $2 million in the hours immediately after the caucuses, a campaign aide said.

Mr. Rubio also received an endorsement from former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who pulled the plug on his campaign Wednesday night.

“It is time to coalesce around the strongest candidate who will stand up for conservative values, be a statesman on the world stage, and has the ability to win a general election,” he said. “That is Marco Rubio.”

But Mr. Rubio continues to be dogged by his support of the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that would have granted citizenship rights to most illegal immigrants.

Mr. Rubio stumbled in the last debate as he tried to square his authorship of the bill with a 2010 campaign promise to oppose “amnesty.”

Speaking at a town hall meeting in Bow, Mr. Rubio said threats from the Islamic State in recent months have reshaped his views on immigration.

The nation must enforce the laws on the books and secure the border with the help of 20,000 new border agents and finishing a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said.

“After that, we are not going to have amnesty,” Mr. Rubio said.

But at a campaign stop in Laconia, Vince Merola, 77, of Wolfborough, pressed Mr. Rubio on how he could explain his 2013 bill, given his 2010 anti-amnesty promise.

Mr. Rubio responded that his 2010 promise was to oppose a “blanket amnesty,” which he said “meant an effort that had previously existed to literally just hand out citizenship cards with very little impediment.”

“I did not support that then and I do not support that now,” Mr. Rubio said.

Afterward, Mr. Merola said Mr. Rubio’s answer didn’t assuage him.

“He says all the right things like they all do, but I check their records and I see what he has done and what he has supported and what he hasn’t supported, and that bothers me,” Mr. Merola told The Washington Times. “The biggest problem I have with him is that the Republican Party wants him, and I can’t stand the Republican Party. They have given Democrats and Obama everything he has wanted because it is all about power and money.”

Other voters, though, said they saw a good general election candidate in Mr. Rubio.

“I just think he is the guy that can rally the Republicans, the conservatives,” said Steve McMahon of Manchester. “He can bring people together just like he says. He is not divisive like Cruz is, and I think he has an incredible grasp of all the issues.”

Mr. McMahon, 65, said he settled on Mr. Rubio after bouncing back and forth between him and Mr. Christie. He said at least one of his friends has done the same.

“I think a lot of people are going to do that — say, ‘Why waste my vote if those guys really can’t in the end get elected, where he could?’ ” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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