While Ted Cruz is spending the week crisscrossing Iowa ahead of that state's upcoming caucuses, his colleague in the U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio, is making his first major play for Cruz's home turf with a campaign rally in Dallas.
The Florida Republican is scheduled to speak at a rally at the Westin Dallas Park Central hotel Wednesday afternoon as well as attend at least one fundraiser. The visit marks Rubio's first public campaign event in Texas, which has hosted events from several other presidential contenders in recent months, including multiple visits from the two Republicans currently leading in national polls, Cruz and billionaire Donald Trump.
Rubio's campaign is expected to announce Wednesday that he has tapped four current and former state lawmakers to help lead his effort in Texas: state Reps. James Frank of Wichita Falls and Larry Gonzales of Round Rock as well as ex-state Reps. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving and Martha Wong of Houston.
If Rubio hopes to snag some of Texas’ 155 delegates in the GOP primary on March 1, it might be an uphill climb. In the last University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll of self-reported registered Republican primary voters, from November, Rubio came in fourth place with nine percent. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has consistently led polls in Texas, tied with Donald Trump at the front of the pack with 27 percent each.
Yet Rubio does have some prominent backers in Texas, including former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks and Harlan Crow, one of the biggest GOP donors in the state. Hicks will host a private fundraiser for Rubio at his mansion Wednesday evening, while Crow held a fundraiser for the campaign in September.
Texas voters shouldn't count Rubio out, according to State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who endorsed Rubio in a newsletter to his constituents last month and will be introducing the Floridian at Wednesday's rally. Frank said he believes Rubio would be the most competitive candidate in a general election among the Republicans still in the race.
“I think Marco Rubio wins — and wins big — against Hillary,” Frank said. Cruz might also be able to win the general election, he added, but that victory would be by a smaller margin.
Tensions between the Cruz and Rubio campaigns have heated up in the past few weeks, as they’ve clashed over their respective positions on immigration. Cruz has worked hard to highlight Rubio’s work in 2013 on the “Gang of Eight” bill, which would have established a pathway to citizenship, and to portray Rubio as inconsistent in his immigration policies. Staffers from the Cruz campaign have also critiqued Rubio for being too focused on national media exposure, without spending much time on the ground in Iowa. Meanwhile, Rubio staffers have accused Cruz of being absent in New Hampshire and of flip-flopping on his support for a pathway toward legalization for many of those already in the country illegally.
Rubio's campaign does not appear to be expecting the kind of large attendance that have flocked to Trump's rallies last year in Dallas and Beaumont, both of which attracted crowds of several thousand. The maximum capacity of the Westin Dallas Park Central hotel ballroom hosting Rubio's rally is approximately 1,200.
Frank said he believes Rubio’s momentum in the early primaries could garner him a strong showing in Texas — even if Cruz’s Texan roots keep him at the top of the polls.
“Whoever gets second will pick up a pretty impressive trophy,” he said.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Correction: A reference to "likely Republican voters" in an earlier version of this story was changed to "self-reported registered Republican primary voters."