Why Marco Rubio was real winner in Iowa

Story highlights

  • Tara Setmayer: Ted Cruz may have won in Iowa, but all eyes are on Marco Rubio, whose third place win exceeded expectations
  • She says how a candidate places in Iowa can have a big effect on gaining momentum and money; right now, all eyes are on Rubio

Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.

(CNN)To be sure, Sen. Ted Cruz accomplished something no other GOP candidate this year has been able to do. He made Donald Trump a loser. No amount of humility or grace will change the fact The Donald was handed his first "L" at the hands of that "Canadian" nobody likes. And it wasn't even close.

Yet, even as Cruz might like to revel in this history-making night in Iowa, the storyline has shifted away from him to the emergence of Marco Rubio as a viable alternative in the GOP race. Not only did Trump lose to Cruz, he almost lost to Rubio in a dramatic, last-minute surge that propelled Rubio to within 1 percentage point of second place.
This was a spectacular feat considering Rubio was projected to be a distant third by the venerable Des Moines Register poll that had forecast he'd garner only 15%.
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    Rubio's final tally came in at 23%, blowing the doors off expectations, which at this stage of the campaign can be more valuable than actually winning. Entrance polls showed the notoriously fickle last-minute undecided voters broke heavily for Rubio. It's fair to say that most political observers grossly underestimated Rubio, mistakenly hyping up the two-man race scenario between Trump and Cruz. Not anymore.
    It appears that voters do appreciate a candidate having a command of the issues, the ability to articulate a plan to protect the United States and defeat with specificity, rather than bluster and braggadocio. Actually showing up for a debate four days before voting in that state apparently matters, too.
    Once the caucus results became clear, Rubio saw an opening and seized the moment. By giving his speech first during prime time viewing to maximize exposure and effect, Rubio cleverly outmaneuvered Cruz. He gave aspirational and well-delivered remarks reminding Democrats why Rubio poses such a threat to their candidate in a general election.
    Marco Rubio speaks to his supporters in Iowa
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    He talked about his ability to unify the country and offered a positive vision for the future. He was affable, self-deprecating, confident, gracious, engaging. Dare I say presidential? But more importantly, Rubio came across as relatable. He stole the show.
    Contrast Rubio's speech with Ted Cruz's 30-plus minute diatribe -- more of a lecture than a victory speech. Even Fox News couldn't take it anymore and cut away before Cruz finished.
    Yes, Cruz's message of a return to constitutional respect and liberty is an important one but it's too narrowly focused. Cruz's delivery and disposition can be off-putting to many voters, and we saw that on full display during his victory speech.
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    Rubio, on the other hand, appeals to a much wider cross section of Americans. Whether we like it or not, empathy and likeability are major factor in voters' decision-making. If a candidate can't connect with the voters on an emotional level, how can you expect them to listen to your message? Just ask Mitt Romney. Or Hillary Clinton.
    How a candidate performs in Iowa can dictate a campaign's story line moving forward. You don't necessarily have to win there, but exceeding expectations can provide much needed momentum and money. How you place in Iowa can significantly help fill campaign coffers or suck them dry. Cruz and Rubio will undoubtedly reap the financial benefits, but other lower-tier candidates should finally face the music and drop out, the way Mike Huckabee did.
    The media has an enormous amount of influence on how election story lines are written. Unfortunately for Cruz, the ink hasn't even dried on his Iowa victory and it's already an afterthought. As the campaign moves on to the New Hampshire chapter, all eyes are on Rubio.