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Marco Rubio: The Bush and Walker insurance policy

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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A new Quinnipiac University poll of the 2016 presidential field is making the headlines Thursday because of Sen. Marco Rubio's surge to the front of the crowded Republican pack.

But perhaps more notable -- and perhaps better news for Rubio -- is what the poll shows about how supporters of the two candidates seen as the early front-runners for the Republican nomination view the senator from Florida. For backers of both Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, he's the most appealing backup plan.

Before we go any further, a caveat: The importance of national surveys is often overblown in the context of presidential nominating contests. Polls in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are much more useful barometers. That said, it's never bad news for candidates who perform well in the national polls. It gets them some media buzz and it gives them a data point they can bring to donors when they say, "Hey! This is why you should write me a big check!"

Okay, back to the numbers. Rubio sits on top of the Republican field with 15 percent support. This isn't terribly surprising. He's the latest candidate to officially launch a presidential campaign. And he's avoided missteps on the campaign trail and won some positive media coverage for his quick fundraising pace out of the gates.

Fifteen percent gives Rubio a slight edge over Bush (13 percent) and Walker (11 percent) in a Republican field where no one cracks 20 percent. Nobody is dominating the race right now, with the top candidates all within the poll’s error margin. When Bush and Walker launch their campaigns, as is widely expected, since both are exploring runs right now, if they can have good first weeks of the campaign trail, it won't be surprising to see them enjoy a bump in the polls, too.

After all, they are already doing well. The Real Clear Politics average of polling shows Bush at No. 1 and Walker at No 2.

But what happens if they stumble? According to Quinnipiac's data, it's good news for Rubio.

Asked who their second choice is, 18 percent of Bush supporters name Rubio. Asked the same question, 20 percent of Walker supporters say Rubio.

The data confirm what many Republican strategists and donors believe: That if either or both of the two early front-runners flame out, Rubio has as good a chance as anyone of poaching their support.

After Rubio, Bush does best among Walker supporters on the "second choice" question. And among Bush supporters, the same is true of Walker. So, the two front-runners are expected to pull support from each other too, should one of them bow out.

It's a long campaign. There are going to be ups and downs. It's very difficult to keep a firm grip on front-runner status. In 2012 Mitt Romney, who was seen as the front-runner at the start, went through difficult periods where Republicans flirted with supporting other candidates and drafting alternatives into the contest.

For Rubio, the key is that if and when Walker and Bush struggle or exit the race, he needs to make a compelling case to their bases for why they should back him instead. He's already part of the way there.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed