Rubio's post-Iowa momentum could be a mixed blessing

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., acknowledges the audience at a caucus night celebration, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

With the fanfare around the winners of the Iowa caucuses, people are taking a hard look at the state's third place selection -- Marco Rubio. Political watchers say the fight for the Republican nomination is now a three-man race.

Rubio's campaign sees the path to the nomination as a long game, reports CBS News correspondent Julianna Goldman. He has spent 26 days in New Hampshire since announcing his candidacy, and now with Iowa in his rear view mirror, the next seven days could be the most important.

Rubio may have come in third, but his farewell to Iowans sounded more like a victory speech.

"We will unite our party, and grow our party and we will defeat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or whoever they nominate," Rubio said Monday night.

The Republican establishment is still searching for a candidate who will emerge from the pack. Both Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have built political careers on rejecting the party elite.

"Marco Rubio finished Iowa within one percentage point of Donald Trump, and that's amazing," CNN political commentator Amanda Carpenter said.

"He is basically a modern JFK to Hillary Clinton's Richard Nixon," Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen said on "The Kelly File."

"Marco Rubio proved that this is very much a three-way race and I think going into New Hampshire, this could give him that extra bit of momentum," an MSNBC commentator said.

But that momentum could be a mixed blessing.

"He'll have momentum coming out of Iowa but he's also been horsetrading back and forth with the voters as we've seen in the polling with Jeb Bush, with Kasich, with Christie," CBS News director of elections Anthony Salvanto said.

Christie, Kasich and Bush all spent Iowa caucus night campaigning in New Hampshire. The three are pinning their hopes on this state, and they won't let Rubio off easy.

"When he sponsored the immigration bill, he took a lot of heat and theminute that heat got really hot, he ran the other way," Christie said about Rubio.

Rubio comes into New Hampshire with more insight from Iowa's electorate.

"He did very well with people who are looking for a candidate that they thought could win in November," Salvanto said. "Everybody in the party wants to win and Rubio, that might be his card to play going into New Hampshire."

New Hampshire voters prides itself on being a different electorate than Iowa. Where Iowa selected Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, this state picked the last two Republican nominees -- Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain in 2008.