Las Vegas (CNN)Far from the tourists on the Las Vegas strip, Marco Rubio breezed into the Havana Grill for Friday night happy hour with the certain lightness of a candidate on the upswing.
Marco Rubio places his bets in Las Vegas
There was a crush at the door and people standing on chairs in the dining room to try to get a glimpse of him — and though it's pretty hard to knock the Florida senator off his stump speech script, the crowd managed to do that.
"They're handing out mojitos in the middle of my speech, I love it," Rubio said in slight amazement as he toggled between the fading American Dream and the need for entitlement reform. "I promise that has never happened before."
The crowd wanted him to drink one.
"No, No, No," he said, waving off the cocktail. "I drink water." He agreed to Cuban coffee, which was placed on the blond stool next to him on the stage. (There was laughter and applause at Rubio's familiar water joke.) "You guys are messing up my stump speech," he grinned, taking a sip from the tacitas. "OK I'm ready now," he said.
It is not clear yet whether Rubio is the GOP candidate with momentum, as his campaign claims. His rise in the polls has been incremental, and he is certainly not drawing the kind of massive, electric crowd that Trump did earlier this week during a rally on the Las Vegas Strip. Still, among Republicans here in Nevada, he's certainly got buzz.
Rubio's third quarter haul was underwhelming: just $6 million to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's nearly $12 million, according to three sources briefed on the numbers.
But the mood among his top donors and major backers was upbeat this week as they gathered at the Bellagio in Las Vegas for a "fourth-quarter strategy session," and played football with Rubio and ate hamburgers with the candidate at a low-key barbecue in a Las Vegas suburb.
As usual, the Florida senator had not made headlines this week -- no attention grabbing interviews, no awkward moments like the ones that have tripped up Jeb Bush in recent weeks, no major policy stumbles like the one that ensnared Ben Carson on the debt ceiling -- and that is just what his backers have come to expect.
Rubio's trademark in this race has become smooth, even performances, message discipline and a particular talent for delivering his jokes as though he is telling them for the first time.
Bush's campaign has tried to draw donors and voters with the promise of a sophisticated, well-funded operation with top-notch teams that are already organized on the ground in the early states and can stand the test of time. (And when you ask voters here in Nevada which campaign they are hearing from, the most common answer is Bush).
Rubio's play has been lean and nimble: with the candidate flying on JetBlue or the cheapest commercial carrier; a campaign office in D.C. where flights in and out for staff are cheaper than they would have been from Miami; and a system where every expense over $500 has to get the approval of the campaign manager.
After campaign staff briefed donors on the third quarter numbers in Vegas this week, Rubio backers were quick to point to what they said was the most telling figure for a campaign with potential to grow: $11 million in cash on hand for a campaign with a light footprint.
They also pointed to a quickened pace of fundraising after the second debate — $1 million in the last week of September.
Rubio's chief rival, Jeb Bush, has not yet released his numbers for the third quarter, but it is clear that many donors are still hedging their bets -- either giving to both or staying on the sidelines as the race shakes out.
Nevada is a state that is particularly difficult to read — where ground game is king; and polls can't really measure who will turn out to caucus (only 7% of GOP voters showed up to caucus in 2012). But a win here could go a long way to helping Rubio fill the coffers before he faces Bush in their expensive home state of Florida.
Rubio likes to say he feels at home here. He often talks about how his family moved here when he was a third-grader and how his more than 60 relatives might just give him the winning edge in the February caucuses. He drops the kind of references that have currency with the locals: like the fact that his mother worked as a maid here at the Imperial Palace.
The voters turning up at Rubio events are the ones who are tired of Trump -- and use words like "embarrassing," "unserious" or "clown" when asked about his potential presidency.
"I think (Rubio) represents me best. I'm Hispanic, born to immigrant parents," said Jonathan Venegas of Las Vegas, describing his affinity for Rubio as he waited for the candidate at Havana Grill. He scoffed at Trump's plans to build a wall: "Come on, that's impossible to do. That's billions of dollars that can go anywhere else other than building a wall."
They are voters who have also been eyeing Jeb Bush, but have walked away unimpressed. One striking note at Rubio events this week was the number of Republicans who said they'd never support Trump, but used Trump's "low-energy" critique to explain why they are far more interested in Rubio than Bush.
"He's a fine man, but he doesn't ignite the enthusiasm like he needs to," said Las Vegas voter Paul Keppler of Bush, explaining why he began volunteering for Rubio's campaign a few weeks ago.
Venegas said he hopes Rubio will stay the course "slow, steady and rising."
"It's not the time to peak right now," Venegas said. "Come January and the caucuses, that's the time to peak. That's what Barack Obama did in 2008. I can see Marco Rubio doing the same thing."
"He's rising, big time," said Robin Joyce, who hosted Rubio on Friday morning before a group of Christian business leaders and hotel owners. "He really appeals to the demographic makeup of our state. We really are growing — in the Hispanic population I think we are at 24% now. His message is one that resonates with them, not just from a faith standpoint, but also from the standpoint of not just jobs, but good jobs — and of course a pathway to citizenship that really is reasonable. He's all for that; and we're all for that."
Joyce, a pastor who will remain neutral in the GOP race and leads a large church in Las Vegas that he said draws 7,000 people on the weekend, noted that Rubio quickly sold out tickets for the event and his name has popped up frequently in casual conversations at church.
"After the last couple of debates, I've heard just nothing but great things about his sincerity, his vision is not just one of words but it really seems like he's going to put in practice what he's talking about," Joyce said. "And I think that's what people respond to."