Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has come to a fork in the road in his bid for the White House.
The Florida senator can continue his push in the Republican primaries until March 15, when voters in his home state head to the polls. Or he can suspend his campaign and avoid the potential embarrassment of getting trounced on his home turf.
With aggregate polls on Real Clear Politics showing Republican presidential candidate frontrunner Donald Trump maintaining a commanding 16-point lead over Rubio, the latter choice is a real possibility. That's why leaks have sprung in the Florida native's campaign, fueling stories about discord among his advisers.
Some of them want Rubio to push on, while others say he needs to get out before Florida if he values his political future.
That's because some analysts think a loss in Florida wouldn't just be a campaign killer, it would be a career killer for Rubio. That's an important consideration for an ambitious young politician, because a convincing loss would make voters, and party kingmakers, question whether Rubio could muster serious support for the state's 2018 gubernatorial race.
If Rubio drops out after Florida, it also hurts his chances of playing second fiddle to Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the sole remaining Republican with enough support to challenge Trump. If Rubio quits before Florida and endorses Cruz, he'd be giving up a miniscule chance of becoming President Rubio, but he'd put himself in a position to become Vice President Rubio.
The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin thinks dropping out and endorsing Cruz could reap serious rewards. Rubio would shed the image of "a callow young man," he'd earn praise for his humility and his campaign wouldn't have been in vain, according to Rubin.
"Please don’t do the 'I don’t want to be VP' routine," Rubin wrote. "Of course you do, if it means in four or eight years you’d be next in line for the GOP nomination."
There are compelling reasons for Rubio to drop out, but there are even better reasons for him to remain in the race.
The biggest argument against dropping out is Cruz. The media hasn't paid much attention to the Texas firebrand, but that's because Trump has hogged the limelight in a crowded Republican field. If Rubio drops out, it becomes a two-man race.
And that's when people will realize just how crazy Cruz is.
He's an unabashed theocrat who wants to demolish the wall between church and state. He's utterly without compassion, saying the uninsured should get their healthcare in emergency rooms. He's said, repeatedly, that gay marriage is "a real threat to liberty," and has promised to make gay marriage illegal again as president.
Prior to the presidential campaign, Cruz was most famous for engineering the disastrous government shutdown in a failed attempt to derail Obamacare. A New York Times piece published on March 8 details how deeply unpopular Cruz is, even among his Republican colleagues, and a Washington Post story from January noted, "the GOP establishment's white-hot hatred for Cruz."
That explains why Cruz hasn't amassed endorsements from Republican bigwigs, even though he's the last candidate in the race who can challenge Trump.
“Historically the media's had two caricatures for Republicans, that we are either stupid or evil,” Cruz told CNBC's John Harwood. “They've to some extent invented a third caricature for me, which is crazy.”
Once Americans really gets to know Cruz, it won't be pretty. If getting trounced in his home state is a possible career-killer for Rubio, attaching himself to Cruz is absolute career murder. Especially because Rubio has always prided himself on being among the more reasonable, centrist Republicans with the ability to draw independent voters.
For Rubio, there's an equally compelling reason to stay in the race. He'd be defying the GOP's elites. Republican insiders have been trying to cull the field for a long time, arguing that a two-man race would consolidate the "anyone but Trump" vote.
That road leads to a brokered convention, and the real possibility that Republican leaders will throw out the primary votes and disenfranchise millions of voters, many of them first-time GOP primary participants. If the Republican party is on the verge of a major fracture, as some observers believe, that would be the straw to break the camel's back. No candidate wants to be a part of that.
In the end, Rubio should stick to his guns and stick it out until Florida. If he wins his home state, it's a validation. And if he loses, at least he loses as his own man, not a lackey for Cruz.