Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s better to quit when you’re ahead.

While driving away from one of Marco Rubio’s final campaign stops in Iowa, at the grounds of a giant casino, I remember looking out the window at the massive banners: “Your table is waiting,” one read. “All about winning,” read another. “The ultimate gambling experience.”

The rally could have been a premonition for the upstart 44-year-old, who quickly became a national sensation and ascendant as the fresh-faced savior of a hijacked party. But as I followed him on the campaign trail from frostbitten Manchester to sunny Miami, the rearview sight of that casino clearly became an omen for Rubio’s presidential run — just not for the reasons I would have thought.

Back then, the glint-eyed Cuban-American looked like he might beat the house in an election that increasingly seemed to mimic the chaos of the Las Vegas strip. His campaign flouted conventional wisdom, going all in with national sizzle over retail politics, optimism over anger and downplaying expectation over bold chutzpah. For a time, it appeared to work. But Rubio doubled down on his bold bets until finally he went broke. Today, Rubio looks less like the high roller who came out big and more like the man who stayed too long, risked it all and is now left to wonder what happened under the morning light of the Florida sun, where he trails Donald Trump by double digits with days to go before his home-state primary.

Like a bookie who thinks he’s found his lucky corner, Rubio tends to repeat successful maneuvers — until they backfire.

Nobody has gambled more on the first-term senator than Rubio himself. Just announcing his bid last April was gutsy. It meant facing off with Jeb Bush, his well-connected (and deep-pocketed) mentor. “It took no small degree of courage,” Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University, told OZY. “Prevailing wisdom was that Rubio was going to be a footnote.” When he didn’t become one, Rubio was emboldened, adopting a strategy that emphasized his stardom. He did fewer events than his rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire, opting instead to soak in the spotlight of national TV commercials and talk-show circuits. For some, Rubio’s early optimism was a refreshing touch: “I think it’s very uniting,” said Kendall Klett, a 51-year-old New Yorker who traveled with her husband across state lines to see him.

At the same time, Rubio’s campaign team seemed determined to dampen the enthusiasm, perhaps hoping to avoid the fate of men like Scott Walker and Ben Carson, who rose in popularity and fell just as quickly. That tactic paid off in Iowa, where Rubio’s close third-place finish was lauded as a victory, but “downplaying expectations will wear thin if you don’t win a primary,” warned Drake University’s Anthony Gaughan. That strategy had worked for George W. Bush, says New England College political scientist Wayne Lesperance, though Rubio was unable to flip the switch when his moment arrived.

Rubio also eschewed stomp-the-ground politics while hoping to spark a nationwide movement — and ended up being swallowed by Trump’s revolution. Meanwhile, his ground game paled in comparison to Ted Cruz’s, and Rubio couldn’t gain an advantage even after dozens of Republican governors and statesmen started to coalesce around him. Now, he’s retrenched in Florida, staking everything on the idea that if he can win here, his stalled campaign will spark new life again — even if it means giving up on states like Ohio and North Carolina, which also vote Tuesday. “We are going to win Florida, and we will win the nomination,” Rubio assured a West Miami crowd this past week.

Like a bookie who thinks he’s found his lucky corner, Rubio tends to repeat successful maneuvers — until they backfire. His positive message was a risk, experts say. It sometimes made Rubio appear naive compared to his opponents, who struck darker chords to an angry electorate. Rubio also sold himself as the only one who could beat Hillary Clinton, when he still had yet to slay Trump. “Marco Rubio let us down” by not winning early states, says 17-year-old Cuban-American Alner Cabrera, who now supports Cruz. And Rubio’s below-the-belt jabs against Trump in recent weeks have backfired, leaving him plummeting in the polls. If he could do it again, Rubio told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly on Wednesday, “I’d do it differently.”

***

Having spun fortune’s wheels, Rubio is spinning once more. Fresh off the campaign bus in Hialeah, his friend Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera is the first to give Rubio a hug after introducing the senator in Spanish. Rubio flashes that cheery grin to his hometown crowd, where he began his political career by representing this region as city commissioner for West Miami. “People said you weren’t ever going to get ahead,” Rubio says, looking energized and mixing in sentences in Spanish.

But even with the sun setting in front of him, the most blinding sight to him must be the mostly vacant high school football field. The crowd barely reaches the 20-yard-line, and the empty bleachers are hardly the homecoming his entourage must have imagined when he rolled high out of that casino parking lot just six weeks earlier. Now, another player is waiting in the wings. And it’s time, perhaps, for Rubio to fold.

That next key player — who could carry on Rubio’s legacy and is currently running for his vacated Senate seat — may be this friend and fellow Cuban-American.

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OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.