Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, is surrounded by members of an audience while speaking during a television interview before a campaign event at town hall in Exeter, N.H Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 (Photo: AP)
Man of the moment Marco Rubio hit the ground running Tuesday, eager to capitalize on his strong Iowa showing and convince US voters he is the singular Republican who can defeat Hillary Clinton in November.
The charismatic senator from Florida did not win Monday night's Iowa caucuses but he definitely exceeded expectations. Arch-conservative senator Ted Cruz came in first, while Rubio finished a strong third, just a percentage point behind Donald Trump.
Barely after midnight, Rubio was on the ground in New Hampshire, preparing for a manic one-week sprint to the state's primary on February 9 and declaring himself capable of uniting the fractious Republican Party.
"When I'm our nominee I will bring the party and the conservative movement together. I will unify us so we can win," he told about 700 people packed into the Exeter town hall.
Rubio begins what he called "the greatest eight days in American politics" as the undisputed leader among the four more traditional candidates.
"He outperformed them 10 to one," Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, told AFP of his establishment rivals John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.
"That is very important to the Republican Party establishment, (because) they're looking for someone to rally behind."
The establishment largely finds Trump and Cruz objectionable, with concerns that the party will lose the general election if one of the two wins the nomination.
"They didn't know who was going to put a challenge to the two, and Rubio is providing an answer," Covington said.
Rubio raced out onto the campaign trail early Tuesday, pressing the flesh at an airport diner and making other stops in the small state that holds the political spotlight for the next week.
Cruz is also in the Granite State, polling in second place after Trump, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average. But Rubio is only a point or so behind, and Cruz may actually face a tougher road there than his rival.
Cruz won Iowa because of his ability to draw conservative evangelicals, his bread and butter voters, to the caucuses.
The first and second states on the primary calendar have dramatically different electorates and "history suggests that momentum doesn't carry over from Iowa to New Hampshire," said Fergus Cullen, a former Republican state chairman in New Hampshire.
If Iowa is among the most evangelical of US states, New Hampshire is the opposite, with a more secular streak, Cullen said.
That provides better odds for those in the crowded establishment lane.
With billionaire frontrunner Trump, whose entire brand is all about winning, seen as suffering a setback in Iowa, Rubio has emerged with mainstream momentum.
But that leaves him with a figurative target on his back and New Jersey Governor Christie, who has spent week after week campaigning in New Hampshire, was already launching political grenades.
In Bedford, he slammed Rubio as "the boy in the bubble" whose handlers keep him to his scripted speech and away from reporters and who "ran away from his own immigration bill when it got too hot."
Rubio insisted he remains the best opportunity for Republicans to snatch back the White House, and that embracing Trump's divisiveness or Cruz's extremes will lead to four more years of a Democrat at the helm.
"This sense of frustration and anger that you feel is justified, because not only has Barack Obama taken us in the wrong direction, but to be frank, leaders in either party have not done enough to stop it," Rubio said.
If he is the nominee, "we're going to beat Hillary Clinton and we're going to turn America around."
Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner facing a fierce challenge from anti-billionaire Bernie Sanders, downplayed the prospects of a Hillary-Marco general election showdown.
"I'm not thinking that far ahead," she told CNN. "My time frame is next Tuesday," the New Hampshire primary.
Cullen, who last week endorsed Kasich, said that despite Rubio's uplifting oratory and rags-to-political-riches personal story, his is not the most optimistic message.
"Rubio has gotten angrier as the campaign progressed," warning about an increasingly dangerous world, he said.
"Kasich is betting there's a significant number of American voters who think the world isn't going to hell."
Next week it will be New Hampshire voters who determine whether Rubio indeed is carrying major momentum deeper into the race.