WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and potential 2016 presidential candidate, is lending his conservative cred to a Senate candidate from Iowa who is in the driver’s seat for a competitive primary that could be decided Tuesday.
On Monday afternoon, Rubio is scheduled to join state Sen. Joni Ernst at her campaign headquarters in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale. Ernst, from the tiny southwestern Iowa town of Red Oak, has taken a commanding lead in a five-person Republican primary. A poll released Saturday has her up by 18 points over a big-spending former energy company executive, a former U.S. attorney and a college professor/former conservative radio show host.
Ernst, who made a national name with two catchy and provocative TV ads -- one dealing with hog castration, the other showing her shooting at a firing range -- is widely expected to finish an easy first on Tuesday. But she needs to clear 35 percent to prevent the race from heading to a convention and being decided among party activists.
Given her strong support from the party establishment, Ernst would do well at a convention. Even so, finishing first in the primary has no official impact on the convention, which is decided by the most-dedicated and often most-conservative party activists.
Two other candidates – professor Sam Clovis, who has the backing of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum; and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, who had help last week from Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- have strong followings among conservatives in the state. Ernst does as well: she has received endorsements from both moderate and conservative Republicans, and the recent poll shows Iowa voters perceive her as conservative.
Rubio could help lock down some of those voters, just as former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign stops with Ernst last week could have helped her with moderate Republicans.
The weekend’s poll, from the Des Moines Register, put her at 36 percent -- just above the necessary threshold; 16 percent remained undecided.