Marco Rubio Steps up Iowa Visits With Bus Tour, But Plenty of Ground Left to Cover

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign stop at Weiler Manufacturing, Dec. 17, 2015, in Knoxville, Iowa.PlayCharlie Neibergall/AP Photo
WATCH 'GMA' Hot List: Marco Rubio 'Not Going to Hyperventilate About Polls'

Karen Earle attended a Marco Rubio town hall in Dubuque, Iowa, earlier this month, but didn’t have the chance to ask the senator one of the handful of questions he took from supporters because he was off to another event in Missouri.

As things wound down, Earle shook Rubio’s hand on the rope line and told him she had a question; the senator responded with a smile, “I’ll be back a lot and I’ll answer your question then.”

It’s a promise Rubio will likely keep. His visits to the state have increased significantly over the past two months: 23 events and the launching of a two-day, six-stop bus tour Tuesday. It’s a clear sign that his campaign is committed to doing everything it can to win the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.

"While other candidates have been largely absent from Iowa in December, Marco is spending time meeting voters and doing what we need to do to succeed in February,” the communications director for Rubio’s campaign Alex Conant told ABC News, while taking a swipe at Iowa co-front-runner Ted Cruz, who hasn’t been in the state for nearly a month.

“Five weeks [until the caucuses] is a long time in presidential politics and Iowa caucus-goers are famous for taking their time. Our sole focus is doing as well as possible and that means spending a lot of time in Iowa over the next few weeks," Conant added.

But winning Iowa isn’t just about the number of visits, fundraising or strong debate performances. It’s about getting bodies to a physical location on a Monday night in the middle of winter and motivating them to stay for at least an hour to caucus on a candidate’s behalf.

"There’s a real opportunity for Rubio to consolidate the center-right lane of the party. Right now, that lane remains relatively a jump ball,” said Matt Strawn, former head of the Iowa Republican Party. “So the opportunity's there, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Rubio sits at 14 percent in a Dec. 14 Quinnipiac University Poll of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, well-behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who both lead him by nearly double. Although in third place in most Iowa polls, Rubio’s numbers have steadily gone up in the state.

But there’s another measurement in that same Quinnipiac Poll that may be worrisome to camp Rubio. When participants were asked whether their mind was made up or might change before the caucus, 67 percent of those supporting Rubio said they could look elsewhere, the highest percentage in that category, compared to Cruz and Trump by 18 points.

At Rubio campaign events throughout Iowa, you don't find many supporters who are 100 percent committed to the 44-year-old. That might not be a bad thing five weeks out.

“This is Iowa. We’re all undecided," Sandy Welsh said at a Rubio event in Knoxville, Iowa. "One day they’ll tell you they love Rubio and the next day it will be Ben Carson."

Welsh says the reason she hasn’t committed to the freshman senator is because of the "large number of strong Republican candidates."

For others like Kevin Kincaid, a Hospital CEO in Knoxville, Iowa, what's holding him back centers on whether Rubio can "put together a winning team," and come out in front in the early states, eventually beat Hillary Clinton.

“He’s beginning to get the momentum you need. Being able to raise the money you need. But he has to do well in Iowa," Kincaid said. "It doesn’t do you any good to get behind someone and make contributions to someone who doesn’t do well in Iowa and doesn’t do well in New Hampshire and then falls off the radar.”

Some Republican strategists in Iowa have raised the point that Ted Cruz may be peaking too early. It’s unlikely social conservatives in Iowa who have heavily endorsed Cruz will abandon him before the caucus.

But there’s always the “January surprise” and never is that more evident than four years ago when Rick Santorum surged ahead in the final days to beat Mitt Romney.

“Just because you’re dating a candidate this weekend, doesn’t mean you're ready to walk down the aisle on February 1,” Strawn, the former head of the Iowa Republican Party, said.

Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, says having a strong ground game is the key, meaning volunteers working on your behalf and calling people daily to remind them to caucus. Hagle says he's been hearing Rubio's ground game isn't as strong as other candidates, but there’s still plenty of time.

"For Rubio, you would think it seems like a negative that people are coming to his events and they're not committed,” he said. “The positive is that they're coming to hear him. They want to know, is he the guy?"

For Earle, who still wants her question answered, seeing Rubio in Dubuque sealed the deal and she's now signed-up to be a precinct captain on Feb. 1. Earle says she was impressed by Rubio's plan to combat ISIS and his talk of disbanding the U.S> Department of Education.

"I feel like he could be my neighbor,” she said. “A down-to-earth person with no big head. He doesn’t seem to have gotten where he is by stepping on other people.”

Besides Rubio, Earle, who worked for the Dubuque School District for 24 years, says she liked Cruz, but says he’s not as approachable as Rubio.

“I’m hearing in Iowa that Trump and Cruz are the main ones. I think they’re a lot alike in some ways,” Earle said. “This election is really important and we need to put forth a candidate who will take on Hillary and win.”