AMES, Iowa— Marco Rubio was making a last-minute push to catapult into the top tier of candidates in the final weekend before the Iowa caucus, vying to compete with Donald Trump's showmanship and Ted Cruz's deep support among evangelical pastors.
The senator from Florida, in the midst of a flurry of events throughout the state, was airing 30-minute infomercials in every Iowa media market. He increasingly has emphasized his faith and Saturday released a list of dozens of his own endorsements by Christian leaders.
"Our rights come from God. Our rights come from our creator," Rubio said to a crowd of hundreds at Iowa State Saturday.
Rubio is ratcheting up a longstanding rivalry with Cruz, seeking to capitalize on a debate performance Thursday that the Des Moines Register deemed, in a banner headline, "Rough Night for Cruz."
In a much-anticipated poll released Saturday night by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register, Cruz had the support of 23 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers, compared with 15 percent for Rubio. Trump led with 28 percent.
Iowans are know for deciding late and rewarding a candidate with a last-minute surge. In 2012, Rick Santorum came from behind to narrowly defeat Mitt Romney. In 2004, John Kerry rode a late Iowa surge and resulting victory to get his campaign on track to the nomination.
Rubio is "trying to build on a sense of momentum, and that he's becoming a consensus candidate for those who want to win," said Doug Gross, a longtime Republican consultant in Iowa and a former gubernatorial nominee. "This is how they designed it: to keep expectations low and peak at the right time. They have a shot to do it."
Political observers have long respected Rubio's potential but questioned his path to the top. He has been mired in a pack of other more mainstream candidates — including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. But in national and Iowa surveys, he often has been the second choice for many voters, an indication that he would benefit if others dropped out.
A good night for Rubio, according to several Iowa insiders, would be a percentage of votes in the upper teens or low 20s, a haul that would likely separate him from the trio of governors vying with him for establishment support.
While New Hampshire voters are proud of their independence and willingness to ignore what happens in Iowa, a strong third-place finish for Rubio could give him momentum. New Hampshire polls have shown Rubio, Kasich, Bush, and Christie all hovering around 10 percentage points.
Rubio and Cruz both held rallies Saturday in Ames.
"This is your time. It's up to the men and women of Iowa," Cruz said.
At the back of the hotel ballroom, where hundreds of voters stood shoulder to shoulder, undecided Iowans said the choice had come down to Cruz or Rubio in the final hours, praising both their conservative Christian values.
Tammy Krogh, a 52-year-old oncology nurse from Ames, said she's concerned about Cruz's negative reputation in Washington among other senators. He has not drawn a single endorsement from his colleagues.
"But maybe that's a good thing," said Krogh, who plans to caucus for the first time on Monday.
As for Donald Trump, the front-runner?
"He's obnoxious and arrogant," she said. "There is nothing professional about him. He can't be calling women stupid and ugly."
Her husband, Denny Krogh, a 50-year-old auto dealer consultant, said he's leaning towards Trump — or Rubio, "just barely." Trump's absence from Thursday's debate in Des Moines prompted Krogh to listen to Rubio, and he liked what he heard.
"I just want change. I want someone who can shake it up, pull people together,'' he said.
After listening to Rubio in the afternoon, the couple were still undecided.
"They said a lot of the same things," said Tammy Krogh. "Cruz said to go home and pray, so that's what I think I'll do."
Jon Hider, a 44-year-old software engineer, said he, too, was undecided between Cruz and Rubio, after eliminating Trump — a pronouncement that drew a high-five from Tammy Krogh.
Hider said he had been concerned about Rubio's sponsorship of the immigration bill and heard him up close recently being grilled about his thinking.
Hider likes everything about Cruz except for his stance against ethanol subsidies. His wife comes from a family of corn farmers. "Cruz is potentially jacking my family," Hider said.
After the rally, as Cruz's super PAC handed out T-shirts to those who promised to wear them to caucus night, the crowd mobbed the candidate for photos. One woman asked why she should vote for him over Rubio.
"We've been burned too many times before," Cruz said, as security ushered him out of the ballroom. "Don't listen to rhetoric but look to who has a proven record and who's been a consistent conservative."
At an afternoon Rubio rally at Iowa State, Kathy Beyer, a 55-year-old rental property manager from Ankeny, said she settled on Rubio over Cruz in recent days.
"I just think he can not only unite the Republican Party but also draw independent voters and have a chance to win the overall election," Beyer said.
Beyer, who attended the Rubio rally with her 17-year-old daughter who also plans to caucus for the Florida senator, said she admires Cruz's principles but thinks he is too divisive.
"Marco's demeanor opens more doors," Beyer said.