Watch CBSN Live

Marco Rubio uses Mitt Romney's Iowa map in final days before caucus

DES MOINES -- Rubio, Iowa, is a small town in Washington County on the eastern side of the state, about an hour southwest of Iowa City.

Marco Rubio has crisscrossed the state for months, making dozens of stops in the run-up to the caucuses -- but he's never been to the town with his surname.

That's because Rubio's Iowa strategy is about more than just a name. His campaign has focused on maximizing the impact of the candidate's time and resources across a vast state, and he appears to have plucked it from Mitt Romney's 2012 caucus playbook.

Of the twenty-three events Rubio attended over this final stretch, only a handful were in the more rural conservative counties that Rick Santorum, the eventual 2012 winner of the caucuses, won in 2012. Instead, Rubio's campaign selected places where Romney or Ron Paul had found the most support from more moderate or libertarian voters in Iowa.

What's at stake in today's Iowa caucuses

Romney had learned from the experience of losing the caucuses by nine points in 2008 to Mike Huckabee. In 2012, Romney spent more time in Iowa campaigning around the state's urban centers along I-80, which bisects the state east to west, and on both the eastern and western borders. The effort paid off for Romney, who, in the end, finished second to Rick Santorum but succeeded in turning out voters - losing by just 34 votes.

Now, Rubio is following a similar path, focusing his time on those same populous, urban counties where his campaign feels his forward-looking conservative message resonates.

It's a strategy that's drawn criticism from some of his rivals, who've engaged in the more traditional county-by-county retail campaigning that's traditionally seen as the key to winning Iowa.

The campaign was scrutinized in December for not showing the kind of effort or zeal in Iowa that voters and party officials have come to expect in past cycles. Part of that criticism came when Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan told the New York Times, "More people in Iowa see Marco on 'Fox and Friends' than see Marco when he is in Iowa. Of course, that doesn't mean you don't go to Iowa."

Ted Cruz, Rubio's main competitor, has been one of those vocal critics of his senate colleague's campaign approach to the early state contests. In December, Cruz quipped that you can't win this election "from a TV studio."

Rubio has used a traditional campaign bus in both Iowa and New Hampshire but not to the extent that Cruz has. The Texas senator has been touring the smaller towns and counties throughout the state and just finished a four-day 14-stop blitz for the "full Grassley" - visiting all 99 counties before the election, in the same way Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley does every year. In contrast, Rubio has rarely done more than three or four public events in a day in Iowa since Labor Day, including this final stretch in the state.

The Rubio campaign is betting its more targeted approach will put them in a favorable position heading into caucus night.

"It had never been our priority to do all 99 counties. We didn't think that made a lot of sense."Clint Reed, Iowa State Director for Rubio explained.

Asked about Romney's impact on Rubio's campaign, Reed said "what Mitt Romney did in terms of targeting his travel is a good parallel," though he added that it wasn't an explicit strategy -- it's where the voters they're targeting are.

"The way we have looked at it from day one is to put Marco in front of as many people as possible that we think would be receptive to his message" Reed said.

In 2012, Romney won the top four most populous counties in Iowa (Polk, Scott, Linn and Johnson). Rubio held ten events in those same counties and fourteen of his twenty-three events in the top ten counties since Jan. 23 during his final push.

A map of Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign events in the last 10 days, compared with which county voted for which Republican candidate in 2012. CBS News/Sean Gallitz

Reed pointed to the growth and development in and around those counties as an important indicator of where they say Rubio's message has been the most effective.

With Trump and Cruz having cornered the populist and evangelical wings of the electorate in Iowa respectively, the Rubio campaign has worked to consolidate the establishment elements of the party around his candidacy in order to punch his ticket to New Hampshire and beyond, focusing on the long game of delegate math.

The latest example of this focus on metropolitan areas was this weekend, when the Rubio campaign aired a thirty-minute taped 'town hall' highlighting different moments at events in Iowa over the last few months. The special aired this weekend in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport - the top four cities in Iowa by population.

Can Donald Trump survive an Iowa loss?

Conventional wisdom has settled on the idea that the Florida senator can do no better than third in the Hawkeye state, behind Trump and Cruz, though some pundits predict he has a shot at second.

It's not what the campaign is counting on, though. The last poll to be released before the caucuses by the Des Moines Register on Saturday showed Rubio at 15 percent and comfortably in third place behind Trump (28 percent) and Cruz (23 percent).

"Assume its not simply about the number [for Rubio]" said Julian Zelizer History and Public Affairs professor at Princeton University, who pointed out that Rubio is positioning himself in order to solidify support in the establishment lane of the race in Iowa and beyond - even if Rubio distances himself from that label every opportunity he gets.

"Rubio is concentrating on more populous, more cosmopolitan areas with dedicated voters, voters who are not as evangelical or who are not as open to someone who is an unknown," Zelizer added, alluding to the current frontrunners Trump and Cruz.

Bill Dahlston, a voter from Cedar Rapids and native Iowan who first caucused in 1972, put things more bluntly for the top three candidates.

"As far as the mental ward, you have Cruz and you have Trump ... He [Rubio] will be number one among the sane tier of candidates to come out of here." Dahlston said in an interview after a Rubio town hall.

Dahlston added, "I want to elect somebody who is going to be the chief executive of the federal government not the chief evangelist."