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    Marco Rubio seeks his moment in GOP contest — just not too soon

    Republican presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio spoke during a town hall meeting in Littleton, N.H.
    Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
    Republican presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio spoke during a town hall meeting in Littleton, N.H.

    WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has called him a “kid” and a “clown,” even mocking him for his perspiration during the last debate. Jeb Bush, his former mentor, views him as an inexperienced understudy.

    Yet Marco Rubio is just where he wants to be.

    Rubio has kept a lower profile than many of his opponents since the start of his presidential campaign in April, seemingly content to let other candidates hog the early attention. He has performed well in the debates by most accounts but not grabbed headlines. He only recently has hired a state director in Iowa and has been to New Hampshire just five times since jumping into the race.

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    If Trump is the candidate who blitzes cable television, Rubio is the candidate playing hard to get. Even as polls began showing him climbing in the race, his campaign recently sent out an e-mail: “Marco Dismisses New Poll Numbers.”

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    But increasingly, the freshman senator from Florida is drawing the spotlight as Republicans sift through a field of hopefuls for a candidate they believe can win.

    He has overtaken Bush, his one-time mentor in climbing the ladder of Florida politics, in several polls, and he is offering establishment-minded Republicans an alternative to the three outsider candidates — Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — who have, in very different ways, dominated the campaign.

    “He’s been a lot of people’s second choice for a long time,” said Doug Gross, an unaligned longtime Republican consultant in Iowa, a former gubernatorial nominee, and former Mitt Romney adviser. “With [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker getting out, and Bush underperforming, there’s an opportunity for him. I get the sense that he’s trying to step it up right now to take advantage of that opportunity.”

    Rubio jumped from seventh place to fourth place in a recent CNN national poll. A poll of Florida voters showed that he was ahead of Bush in their home state.

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    One of the biggest developments is a recent CNN poll in New Hampshire that shows Rubio in third place — trailing only Trump and Fiorina — even though he has been there less than almost any other candidate. He has spent only 11 days in the state on nine visits since the beginning of 2013, far less than Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey (43 days), Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (39), Fiorina (40), Governor John Kasich of Ohio (24), or Bush (22).

    Rubio is heading to New Hampshire this week for a two-day trip, including a tour of the Manchester-based tech company DYN, and town hall meetings in Dover and Wolfeboro. That follows a recent trip to Iowa and precedes a swing to Nevada later this week and a return to New Hampshire on Oct. 14. The increase in activity is designed to take advantage of some of the new energy around him.

    “He’s having the benefit of a honeymoon period now,” said Donna Sytek, a much-courted but still undecided former New Hampshire House speaker. “‘Gee, fresh face. Speaks well. Has interesting ideas. Doesn’t have all the baggage that the past front-runners have. Let’s give him a look.’ He needs to come so people can check him out. And leave inspired.

    “He’s clearly younger than the rest of the pack,” she added. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I wish he were 10 or 20 years older, because he’s so youthful-looking.’ But wouldn’t that be a contrast with Bernie Sanders? Or Hillary Clinton? Or Joe Biden?”

    Rubio, 44, jumped to the national stage by running as an underdog, winning a Senate seat in 2010.

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    He is a fluent orator, with the ability to talk about difficult situations by using his own life story. During the last debate, he spoke of his grandfather emigrating from Cuba and of growing up speaking Spanish — in a rebuttal to Trump’s recent remarks that candidates should be speaking English on the campaign trail.

    And in an August appearance on Fox News, Rubio spoke about the “Black Lives Matter” movement in a way that differed from many Republican opponents.

    “We do need to face this,” he said, remarking of a black friend who is frequently stopped by police. “It is a serious problem in this country.”

    He has largely eschewed taking shots at his rivals. Only recently has he started to criticize Trump, calling him “not well-informed on the issues” and “a very touchy and insecure guy,” and he received notice for speaking substantively in debates.

    “He’s probably the best communicator of anybody on stage,” said Charlie Bass, a former Republican congressman from New Hampshire who is neutral in the presidential race. “And in the shopping period, as I call this, he brought some attention to himself. And he deserves it.”

    Yet in one indication of the work Rubio still has to do, Bass has spoken with many of the other Republican presidential hopefuls. He has yet to hear from Rubio.

    To supporters, Rubio has a large upside: He has one of the highest favorability ratings among the candidates. In a recent national survey by Bloomberg News, 60 percent of Republicans said they had a favorable view of Rubio, higher than anyone except Carson, who got 68 percent.

    But Rubio also faces a challenge persuading Republican voters — who despise President Obama, and think he wasn’t experienced enough to handle the job — to take a chance on a one-term senator in his 40s with an unusual last name, one who can win over a room, deliver a good speech, and fill people with hope.

    Bush had a warm relationship with Rubio over nearly two decades, particularly when Bush was governor and Rubio was an on-the-rise state legislator. But the more that Rubio has gained on Bush, the more critical the former governor has become of his onetime protege.

    When Bush was asked whether Rubio had the leadership qualities to be an effective president, he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” recently, “It’s not known. Barack Obama didn’t end up having them and he won an election on the belief that he could.”

    Rubio is now two years younger than Obama was during the 2008 campaign.

    He lacks any significant legislative accomplishment, and his signature issue — immigration reform — has proved to be a liability. He joined seven other senators in aggressively pushing a comprehensive immigration reform bill toward Senate passage, only to walk away from it under withering conservative criticism.

    He also must walk a delicate tightrope. In a campaign so far largely defined by the political outsiders in the field, he has been a politician since the age of 26, when he successfully ran for Miami City Commission and later became the House speaker in the Florida Legislature.

    At a time when voters are deeply disenchanted with Washington, he is a sitting US senator.

    Rubio has been criticizing Washington as if he is not a part of it. And in some ways he isn’t: He has missed almost 30 percent of the votes taken this year. Some of that is attributed to the demands of the campaign trail, but over the course of his nearly five-year Senate career, he has missed 11 percent, which is much worse than the median of 1.6 percent among current senators, according to GovTrack. It is also slightly higher than John McCain, who twice ran for president and has missed 10 percent of his votes over the course of his career.

    Bush has started to point out the missed votes and contend that he was the leader — not Rubio — during their shared years in Florida.

    Trump, meanwhile, has started to mock Rubio, saying that “he’s got no money,” calling him “a baby,” “a kid,” and “a lightweight senator.” But when Trump called Rubio a “clown” at the Value Voters Summit, he was booed by the crowd.

    Rubio’s strategy has been in contrast to Trump, whose face and words saturate cable television, and Bush, whose early strategy was to build a highly financed campaign that would knock anyone else out of the race.

    But over time, Bush has failed to live up to the juggernaut image. In the recent CNN poll of New Hampshire voters, he was tied for fifth place. His support had dropped from 16 percent in June — when he was in first place — to 7 percent when the survey was released late last month..

    “We obviously feel encouraged about where we are, but there’s a lot to do,” said Jim Merrill, a senior Rubio adviser and longtime New Hampshire operative. “It’s been a slow and steady approach.”

    Unlike other candidates, Rubio has not flocked to late-night shows hosted by Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. When he attended Romney’s summit in Utah this summer, most candidates were eager for media attention. Rubio came and went without doing any interviews — though he did quarterback an impromptu flag football game among candidates, and, attendees said, looked good doing it.

    “One of the things people tell you about marketing is, if you want a long-lasting product, suppress the trend. Don’t be a Pet Rock. If you burn hot for a few days, you’ll burn out,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican consultant who is unaligned in the race. “Rubio’s challenge is to demonstrate that he’s a serious and mature alternative, and burning bright hot doesn’t do that for you. Husbanding his money and playing the longer game is very smart politics for him.”

    And it’s a deliberate strategy.

    “There would be nothing worse in my mind than being in first place right now,” Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager, said at a forum. “It’s terrible. We were there for a short while, and that was actually when we were most concerned.”

    To save money, his campaign is asking volunteers to purchase yard signs and bumper stickers. Rubio is flying commercial, always in coach and sometimes on discount airline Frontier.

    Gaining enough financial support has been a challenge for Rubio. Between Rubio and the super PAC supporting him, some $28 million had been raised by the end of June, whereas Bush and an aligned super PAC had amassed nearly $115 million. More recent figures will be released within the next two weeks.

    “He is not going to make headlines every day,” Sullivan said. “He’s not going to be the guy at any debate that comes up with the best one-liner at the debate. Just not going to be him. But he’s going to be the guy that over the course of the debates that you say, ‘You know what, I’m kind of comfortable.’ ”

    Rubio, who has the range to talk policy and the differences between East Coast and West Coast rap, also has developed an appeal to wide groups of the Republican Party. In a field where establishment Republicans are afraid that Trump will capture the nomination, and where Tea Party activists are wary of Bush, Rubio’s campaign believes that he has a unique, if untraditional, advantage.

    “We don’t scare anybody,” Sullivan said.

    Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.