When you try to assess candidates from the other party, even the most unsentimental among us can have a hard time separating our emotional reactions from our level-headed assessment of who's a strong contender and who isn't. For instance, to me, Scott Walker radiates a kind of unpleasant meanness that I suspect wouldn't wear very well among the general electorate. But that's hard to quantify, and I can't be sure that I don't feel that way only because I disagree with his policy positions and with what he has done in Wisconsin.
As a liberal, Walker scares me, because among the serious Republican presidential candidates, I suspect he's the one who would govern with the most intense combination of recklessness and malice. But he doesn't strike me as the most formidable general-election candidate. That would probably be Marco Rubio. Although that judgment is subject to change (we'll have to see how they all perform in the rigors of the primary campaign), Rubio's appeal is undeniable. He's extremely conservative, but wears his ideology lightly—unlike someone like Ted Cruz, he doesn't seem eager to smack voters in the face with how much of a right-winger he is. He's obviously smart, and of course the fact that he's Latino means he could cut in to the Democrats' advantage among that increasingly important group (though by how much, we really have no idea). If I were a Republican, I'd be amazed that more of my compatriots weren't flocking to him.
Amy Walter points out that according to some recent poll results, Walker and Rubio are the only candidates whom every sector of the Republican electorate finds appealing. Yet at the moment, he seems to be barely anyone's first choice, and she doesn't have much of an explanation as to why:
Yet, if Rubio's got such obvious advantages, why is he stuck in the low single digits while Walker has become a "co-frontrunner" with Bush? First, don't underestimate the power of Walker's profile as a conservative governor of a blue state. Furthermore, for a party that's ambivalent at best about the idea of the idea of a "legacy" candidate like Bush, Walker's understated Midwestern-ism is appealing.
Rubio backers, however, aren't worried about his low standing in the polls. If anything, they like where he sits today. Rubio gets to go about his work without the same level of scrutiny that Walker and Bush get. They also see Rubio as a candidate who can endure for the long-haul thanks to his natural political talent. Where Bush struggles on the stump, Rubio shines. Where Walker fails to engage, Rubio connects emotionally.
So, when can we expect to see Rubio's poll numbers catch up with his potential? A high-profile stumble by Bush or Walker could give the Florida senator an opening. The debates could be another place for Rubio to break out. His allies, meanwhile, aren't convinced they need those things to happen for him to succeed. Instead, they say, he just needs to keep doing what he's doing and the voters will catch on to his appeal.
That could be true. It's still very early, and now that we've gone through the "Hey, check out this Scott Walker guy" stage of the campaign, there could be a Rubio boomlet on its way. If there's anything that will hold Rubio back, it may be his youth. Not only is he young, he seems young. In November 2016, he will only be two years younger than Barack Obama was in November 2008 (45 versus 47), but Obama looked like a grown-up while Rubio has a baby face that makes it hard to imagine him at the top of the ticket. That's why I still think he's really running for vice-president, which would set up a second try for the presidency in 2020 or 2024. It isn't such a bad idea.