If you think of the candidates in the 2016 presidential field as stocks (and we do), buying Marco Rubio right now is a smart investment.
There's little doubt that you can buy Rubio stock low because of his involvement in passing a comprehensive immigration reform proposal through the Senate, a role that transformed him from hero to turncoat in the eyes of many conservative voters. And, his famous/infamous dry mouth incident when responding to President Obama's 2013 State of the Union didn't help things either.
But, consider this:
* Rubio's outspokenness on the necessity of an aggressive foreign policy puts him squarely in line with where the GOP establishment sees itself -- and sets up a stark contrast with the non-interventionism of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
* Rubio is the most naturally talented candidate in the 2016 field, with the possible exception of Chris Christie. And, in a presidential race, charisma and natural ability matters -- a lot.
* Aside from immigration, which will continue to be a problem for Rubio with some parts of the base, his record is decidedly conservative. (He was the 17th most conservative Senator, according to National Journal's 2013 vote ratings.)
* He can likely raise the tens of millions he would need to be competitive in the first few states thanks to his national reputation among major contributors -- built during his 2010 Senate bid -- and his base in the donor-rich state of Florida.
Add it up and the path for Rubio to be one of the last men standing becomes not only clear but relatively plausible. (This all assumes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chooses not to run. If Jeb runs, Marco won't.)
The way we have been thinking of Rubio of late is like the 2013-2014 Kentucky men's basketball team. The Wildcats started off the season ranked #1 in the country, a ranking almost exclusively based off of the talent the team had on paper. Once games started to be played, however, the team stumbled and even dropped out of the top 25 nationally. But, when the NCAA tournament came around, Kentucky's talent -- coupled with lessons learned from their up and down season -- shone through. They made the championship game before losing to UCONN.
That story arc is one we could easily see Rubio taking. He was widely seen as the frontrunner for 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 race. He had a VERY rough 2013 but has steadied himself of late. And that talent is still very much there.
Below we rank the ten candidates considered most likely to wind up as the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. Breaking news: The race will change (and then change again) between now and when Iowa voters cast the first ballots of 2016.
10. Rick Perry: There's no question Perry wants to run again after what was a disastrous 2012 bid. And, from what we can tell, he's improved this time around. The problem? You don't get a second chance to make a first impression. (Previous ranking: 10)
9. Paul Ryan: Ryan's recent trip to Iowa is a sign that he is at least thinking about running. Ryan knows that the 2016 race is the "right" one for him in terms of his profile within the party but the more people we talk to, the more convinced we become that in his heart of hearts Ryan wants to be the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and then, maybe, Speaker one day. (Previous ranking: 6)
8. Mike Huckabee: No one in Washington political circles mentions the former Arkansas governor when talking about the 2016 field. That's a mistake. Huckabee remains a revered figure among social conservatives and, as such, would be a factor if he runs. We tend to think Huckabee stays out but if he runs, he moves up this list a bit. (Previous ranking: N/A)
7. Bobby Jindal: Jindal is running as aggressively as anyone on this list. His rollout of an alternative health care plan to the Affordable Care Act is the latest example of his attempt to seize the "ideas guy" slot in the race. Jindal's problem? He's got a bit of a charisma deficit. (Previous ranking: 8)
6. Ted Cruz: Cruz drops a bit from our last rankings due to questions we have about whether he can expand beyond his hardcore tea party base into other parts of the party. There's no doubt the Texas Senator has between 10 percent and 15 percent support in each of the earliest voting states. But, once the field begins to thin we have yet to see any evidence of his ability to appeal to people not already fervently behind him. (Previous ranking: 4)
5. Scott Walker: Walker, on paper, belongs slightly higher on this list. Elected to a Democratic-leaning Midwestern state, his fight against public employee unions turned him into a national conservative hero. But, we've heard more and more whispers of late about whether has the personality to light the Republican electorate on fire. Of course, neither did Mitt Romney. (Previous ranking: 2)
4. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor is wounded from Bridgegate but it's not a death blow. What he has lost is primacy as the establishment alternative to the likes of Paul, Cruz and Huckabee. That is now a wide open slot with Christie working to convince donors that he remains the most electable person in the field. The less you hear about Christie over the next few months the better for him. (Previous ranking: 3)
3. Marco Rubio: As we said above, the Rubio stock is undervalued at the moment.
2. Rand Paul: Paul is running and running hard. His assets are known: a committed fundraising and activist network left over from his father's presidential campaigns and a libertarian-tinged Republicanism that can, theoretically, expand the GOP. So are his weaknesses: views on foreign policy that may well be unpalatable for the party establishment and some associations that won't play well nationally. Still, if you are looking for a candidate likely to make it to the final two of the nomination fight, Paul is the best bet right now. (Previous ranking: 1)
1. Jeb Bush: We've spent the past year trying to figure out where to rank Jeb. Here's the reality: If he runs, he starts the race as the frontrunner. The race becomes defined by Bush and whoever emerges as the anti-Bush or Bush alternative. So, we are putting him where we probably should have had him all along. That said, we still think that the people around him are more keen on Jeb running for president than Jeb himself is. (Previous ranking: 9)