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Marco Rubio aims to show New Hampshire voters he can unite the party

LACONIA, N.H. -- Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is using every bit of momentum his campaign received from the Iowa caucuses to show New Hampshire voters that he - not his competition - is the Republican for all Americans.

Rubio describes caucus winner Ted Cruz as chronically "calculating" and points to the failure of others to pull in higher numbers as testament to their inability to lead. He calls New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a sore loser after Christie accused him of being the "boy in the bubble" who won't take questions.

HIs attacks on his opponents come with one glaring exception: billionaire Donald Trump, who edged him for a second-place finish in Monday's caucuses. Rubio has reasoned that Trump has unveiled insufficient policy, and therefore, hasn't given him reason enough to criticize him, even though they disagree on several fundamental issues.

Marco Rubio has strong showing in Iowa

Instead, Rubio appears to be biding his time, quietly courting his rivals' potential voters. By doing so, he's pursuing a course of consolidation.

"He needs to coalesce the vote before he can challenge Trump," said Republican pollster Greg Strimple, who is unaligned with any of the campaigns. He said he has been impressed with what he calls the Rubio team's "message and strategic discipline."

Rubio captured headlines with his strong third-place finish in the leadoff contest Monday, finishing behind Cruz - the heavy favorite among Iowa's disproportionately influential evangelical conservatives - and less than a percentage point behind Trump, who had seesawed with Cruz between first and second place in most preference polls in Iowa.

If Rubio tops Cruz in New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday and finishes ahead of candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he will have more evidence to support a point he's been hammering for weeks: He is the candidate to unite the party.

That's also made him the candidate with a target on his back. Sensing Rubio's ability to sweep up the same voters they have been courting for weeks, Bush and Christie have come down hard on the Florida senator both in campaign events and on television.

Rubio, however, is trying to retain at least some of his positive message in his appeal to voters.

"When I am our nominee I can bring this party together," Rubio told more than 300 people at a campaign event Wednesday in Bow, New Hampshire. "We cannot win if we are divided against each other."

Some voters have lauded his effort to stay above the fray.

"I have to say Jeb Bush, came out with a big head start, he has been so negative - its a turn off," Kathy Langelier, a retired voter who saw Rubio speak in Laconia, New Hampshire, told CBS News. "Rubio has managed to be positive and upbeat and have good ideas and not be slamming the other people on his side and save most of his fire for Hillary and Obama."

Langelier said she just recently committed to Rubio.

While Republican voters in Iowa skew more toward the evangelical conservative, the New Hampshire Republican primary often draws independents and more fiscally conservative voters. Rubio's campaign is hoping he can show support in two states with very different electorates as evidence of a campaign with longevity and fortitude.

He has reason to believe that he ride a wave of support from voters who decide at the last minute. That helped boost him to third place in Iowa, and is a model he could replicate in New Hampshire: According to a CNN/WMUR poll released last week, a full 37 percent of likely Republican primary voters had yet to commit to a candidate.

Rubio's crowds have been growing during the daytime and his evening rallies are large as well. He pulled in more than 700 people in Exeter, New Hampshire on Tuesday night after the Iowa caucus, the biggest crowd he has seen so far in the state.

With his wife and four children in tow, Rubio maintained a dizzying schedule in New Hampshire this week, squeezing every drop of energy out of his better-than-expected finish in Iowa.

By Tuesday, a sleep-deprived Rubio kicked off the day in New Hampshire doing 15 television and radio interviews to local stations.

Rubio's bus was rolling up to the lakes region north of Concord on Wednesday on a schedule of a dozen public appearances between Tuesday and Saturday's last pre-primary debate at St. Anselm's college in Manchester.

While Rubio was criticizing various rival candidates at times during the interviews, Trump's name never came up. When asked about it, he said Trump has laid out few plans, and that he had no public policy quarrel with Trump.

"So when the time comes and it's appropriate, we'll do so," he said.

Still, Trump differs sharply from Rubio on immigration policy by supporting the deportation of all people in the U.S. illegally. Rubio supports deporting "criminal aliens" but is open to a process by which people in the country illegally may stay after immigration security is addressed.

On Tuesday, a woman asked Rubio his opinion of Trump's public mockery of a New York Times reporter who is disabled.

"I think we all, obviously, not just disagree with it, but find it distasteful," Rubio answered quietly. "I think he's been called out for that repeatedly and I think people see it for what it is."

It's part of a pattern of careful treatment of Trump by Rubio. By contrast, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush released a full-page newspaper ad attacking Trump and was airing a two-minute campaign ad in New Hampshire featuring clips of Trump's on-air insults.

CBS News Digital Political Reporter Sean Gallitz contributed to this story.

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