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How Marco Rubio came undone

"It always comes down to Florida one way or another," presidential candidate and Senator Marco Rubio told supporters at his Orlando headquarters through a bullhorn on Sunday night.

He was right, and on Tuesday night, Florida made it clear that it wasn't their native son who they wanted as their nominee.

An unmistakably emotional Rubio took the stage with his family by his side and suspended his campaign shortly after it was announced that Donald Trump had won the Florida primary.

"While it is not God's plan that I be president in 2016 or maybe ever, and while today my campaign is suspended" Rubio declared, "the fact that I've even come this far is evidence of how special America truly is".

Invoking his deep sense of faith throughout the speech, Rubio was also pragmatic in diagnosing the current political landscape and the state of his campaign.

"America is in the middle of a real political storm. A real tsunami. And we should have seen this coming ... It is clear that while we are on the right side, this year, we will not be on the winning side" Rubio confessed .

That tsunami was Donald Trump -- and the wave is one of anger.

The young and optimistic 1st-term senator tried to be all things to all people in a Republican party that was at war with itself, angry and deeply fractured, struggling for its identity. He marketed himself as both conservative and electable, young yet experienced, someone ready to take the party into the 21st century while still appealing to its victories in the Reagan era.

Florida loss puts final nail in Rubio's campaign coffin

And in the end, those many contradictions and changes in messages doomed his campaign. The numerous pivots couldn't compensate for the fact that Rubio never had a natural constituency.

Almost a year ago today, Marco Rubio announced his candidacy in Miami, Florida at the Freedom Tower, pitching himself as a new type of leader with an optimistic vision for a "new American century." His argument: "yesterday is over" and that our country "has always been about the future".

In what would become a historically large field, Rubio dismissed calls to wait his turn, framing the race as "a generational choice about what kind of country we will be". This argument was made under the assumption that the two leading contenders for their respective party's nominations would be familiar names - Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

As he mentioned in his concession speech, what Rubio could not account for In April of 2015 was the level of anger and disillusionment among the GOP primary electorate and the way Donald Trump would harness those feelings around an issue like immigration, which for Rubio presented its own unique challenges. He could not have known how Trump would dominate the media landscape in a way that would eventually drown out other, more traditional candidates like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and now Rubio.

Even if Rubio and others couldn't see it coming, he empathized on Tuesday night and said he was proud of what he described as a positive campaign.

"When I decided to run for president," he said, "I decided to run a campaign that was realistic about all of these challenges, but also one that was -- one that was optimistic about what lies ahead for our country."

Trump was not the only reason Rubio's campaign failed, even if the businessman's win in Florida acted as the final nail in the coffin. Rubio was dogged throughout the campaign over questions about his light record of legislative accomplishments, his relative inexperience, his involvement with comprehensive immigration reform and heavy use of earned media over traditional organization.

Rubio's overall campaign strategy appeared almost totally reactive, evolving almost week-to-week throughout the primaries.

The evolution of Rubio's engagement with Trump during this campaign was one based on opportunity and ultimately regret. For much of 2015, Rubio, like the rest of the GOP field took a laissez faire approach to Trump's candidacy and antics, dismissing the possibility he could actually translate the support he was seeing in the polls into votes in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.

In poll after poll Rubio was consistently picked as most people's second choice - something that early on and as the field consolidated was seen as a positive. It lent credence to his argument that he was the only candidate that could unite the party after a long nomination fight and emerge as the strongest general election candidate.

But being everyone's second favorite left Rubio without a solid base of support - even in Florida - that could take him across the finish line.

The Rubio campaign recognized early on that they wouldn't be able to raise the most money on the GOP side, with Jeb Bush's establishment support and Trump having his fortune to fall back on.

Instead, Rubio's strategy focused on earned media - leaning on Rubio's personality and television presence to connect with more voters through interviews and the debates.

Terry Sullivan, Rubio's campaign manager, made this strategy explicit in the lead up to Iowa when he told the New York Times in December, "More people in Iowa see Marco on 'Fox and Friends' than see Marco when he is in Iowa."

This ultimately meant less time and resources were focused developing a presidential campaign under the traditional model of building organizations in each state, knocking on doors and turning out the vote - the traditional method that Ted Cruz has proven to still be effective.

Rubio spent a full ten days in Iowa before the caucuses with a focused message on his electability and his faith. The campaign used Mitt Romney's calendar from 2012 to target moderate and suburban conservatives in urban areas where they felt they could over perform.

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That focus paid off after a closer-than-expected 3rd-place finish in Iowa for Rubio - just over 2,000 votes behind Trump. The campaign felt confident going into New Hampshire, where they hoped for a 2nd-place finish to Trump and then a win in South Carolina that would propel him into Super Tuesday and ultimately to the nomination.

That hypothesis was quickly abandoned after a disastrous debate in New Hampshire, where Chris Christie challenged Rubio's lack of executive experience and knocked Rubio off his message. He began repeating his talking point that President Obama had deliberately hurt the country. This fed right into Christie's observation that senators give "memorized twenty-five second speech that is exactly what his advisors gave him" in a devastatingly effective way.

After the debate, Rubio doubled down on his performance, saying he would continue to repeat his criticism of Obama because "it was true". But internally, the campaign knew it had a problem and any momentum they had from Iowa had vanished.

As the results from New Hampshire came in, Rubio took the stage and spoke to a group of shell-shocked supporters who realized that their candidate had just placed 5th behind Trump, Kasich, Cruz and Bush and failed to condense the field

Rubio came clean and admitted it had not been his night, taking the blame for how he performed in the debate just days earlier: "Our disappointment tonight is not on you. It's on me. It's on me. I did not - I did not do well on Saturday night, so listen to this, that will never happen again."

Rubio would later admit that the debate stopped the campaign from being able to close out in New Hampshire the way they had hoped. He held an unprecedented (for him) forty-five minute press conference with reporters that joined him on the chartered flight from New Hampshire to South Carolina in order to clear the air.

That flight, and talking to the press, seemed cathartic for a candidate who up until that point had been extremely controlled by the campaign and not made available to reporters on a regular basis.

With a narrative taking hold after New Hampshire that their candidate was robotic and scripted, the campaign's press strategy changed immediately. Rubio was suddenly taking questions and holding long meetings with the press on a daily basis between campaign stops in South Carolina, all in an effort to show just how un-scripted he really could be.

The Palmetto state was now even more critical to Rubio. Several of his senior advisors had connections to the state, he had a large organization there and the state's focus on national security and social issues matched Rubio's strengths and messaging.

With just days left before South Carolina voted, the Rubio campaign got a big boost, securing the backing of popular Governor Nikki Haley. The Haley endorsement was seen as a coup for the campaign, which was battling with Bush for her support. Haley's backing helped Rubio capture a second place finish, a tremendous success for a campaign that had appeared on life support just days earlier.

With Bush exiting the race after a poor showing in South Carolina and Rubio's second place finish, the establishment began to coalesce around Rubio as the best candidate to take Trump on head to head for the nomination. Endorsements began to pour in daily and yet another narrative started to form: that Rubio would be the clear alternative to Trump.

Rubio definitely had the support of Washington D.C. and in the editorial rooms of newspapers across the country. Fourteen current senators, five governors, over fifty congressman and twenty-six newspapers endorsed him.

Rubio never embraced the idea that he was the establishment choice on the campaign trail, understanding that he needed to sell himself as an outsider despite spending nearly his whole adult life in politics.

And as the field got smaller and the debate stage got more intimate, the Rubio campaign saw an opportunity to confront Trump and engage him squarely on his turf at the Houston debate, just days before eleven states across the country voted on Super Tuesday.

Rubio had said throughout the campaign that he would only highlight policy differences and respond if attacked. Often asked about Trump by the press, Rubio argued that the Republican frontrunner hadn't offered enough specifics in his proposals for him make a clear argument against Trump's plans.

That changed at the debate in Houston, where Rubio abandoned his own self-imposed constraints and got personal with Trump and continuing the assault in campaign stops in the days that followed. Just before taking the stage in Dallas, his first stop after the debate, senior advisor Todd Harris remarked, "you are going to want to see this".

"It's time to pull his mask off, so that people can see what we are dealing with here. What we are dealing with here, my friends, is a con artist," Rubio told the crowd before unloading a barrage of personal attacks on Trump.

Rubio suggested Trump may have wet himself at the debate and was nervous, criticized his makeup, called out his toughness and pointed out his failed business dealings - including Trump University and Trump Vodka. A string of misspelled tweets from Trump gave Rubio the ammunition to "have a little fun" with his crowds, reading back and sarcastically annotating what Trump really meant.

"If we have to be a part of the circus in order to get people to pay attention to Marco's substantive policy positions then let us in the ring," Harris explained about the change in policy.

The insults against Trump hit a high point the next day in Virginia when Rubio pointed out the size of Trump's hands and insinuated what it could mean elsewhere. "Have you seen his hands? There like this. And you know what they say about men with small hands?" Rubio asked, pausing for effect as the crowd laughed, 'You can't trust them. You can't trust them.'"

Rubio's aping of Trump didn't play as he'd hoped. After winning just one state on Super Tuesday, he laid off the personal jabs but continued to argue Trump would destroy the Republican party if he were the nominee and get beaten soundly by Clinton in a general election matchup.

Then he overcorrected. Asked at the end of the next debate in Detroit if Rubio would support Trump as the nominee after calling him a con artist and disqualified from being president Rubio said simply, "I will support the Republican nominee."

It could be argued that this was the night Rubio truly lost the race to Trump. After a week of non-stop criticism, standing on stage with Trump in Detroit, Rubio could not take his own argument that Trump was unfit to be president to its logical conclusion.

But Rubio couldn't stick to that message for long. When violence broke out in Chicago around a canceled Trump rally last Friday, a visibly exasperated Rubio said "it was getting harder every day" to see himself supporting Trump given where the discourse has gone in the race and the way Trump has handled himself as a candidate.

Working hard to win Florida, Rubio admitted in interviews this past week that he would have done things differently in hindsight.

On Monday in West Palm Beach, Rubio recounted that night in Virginia, "a few weeks ago, in response to attacks about the size of my ears or something else, I responded in kind with an attack about -- I'm not going to repeat - stuff." He said reflectively.

"Let me tell you it embarrassed my children, it embarrassed my wife, it embarrassed young people that have followed my campaign, and I felt terrible about it cause I realized win or lose there are people out there that see what I'm doing and follow it as a role model."

Ultimately Rubio got in the mud with Trump in a last ditch attempt to shake up the race but recognized quickly that it went against everything his campaign had stood for and backed away. Rubio attempted to offer real alternative in a Republican primary, one built more on optimism than anger.

And as he ended his campaign Tuesday night, Rubio insisted that but didn't lose that sense of optimism in himself or his country.

"So, yet, while this may not have been the year for a hopeful and optimistic message about our future, I still remain hopeful and optimistic about America."