In Iowa, a Rubio surge or smoke-blowing by the establishment?

Less than 72 hours before the Iowa caucuses get underway, and some observers on the ground in the state say they sense Rubio surging.

The problem is that most of those observers appear to be shills for the establishment, who are desperate to head off a two-man race between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Reading between the lines in this Hill story, it's not hard to discern some smoke blowing.

He easily has the greatest upside,” said Doug Gross, who served as Iowa finance chairman for the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

“Mainstream Republicans are not comfortable with Trump or Cruz, and the more I hear from them, the more they say they’ve decided on Rubio. He has the greatest potential and it’s driven by pragmatism, a desire to win, and angst with the two front-runners.”

To be sure, that assumes more strength for Rubio than is currently reflected in the polls.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, the race for Iowa is a two-man contest with Trump the front-runner at 31 percent, and Cruz hanging on at 25 percent. Rubio is a distant third place at 14 percent. 
However, Iowa is known for producing late-surging candidates.

In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) was polling in sixth place one week before the caucuses and subsequently shocked political observers by coming out of nowhere to win.

According to a Monmouth University survey released this week, not even half of all likely caucus-goers have finally settled on their candidate, leaving plenty of room for voters to swing behind an upstart.

The sense in Iowa is that in 2016, Rubio is likeliest to outperform in a way that has a meaningful impact on the race.

Several recent polls have picked up on early signs of momentum

Rubio sits 4 points higher in the RCP average than he did only one week ago. The Florida Republican clocked in at 18 percent in a NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll released this week, his best showing in any survey of Iowa to date.

That poll has Rubio only 7 points behind Cruz, who is down from the highs he reached in early January.

No one interviewed by The Hill is predicting that Rubio will catch Trump on Election Day, and most still believe that Cruz will finish ahead of him. 

However, if a late surge by Rubio can propel him close to Trump and Cruz into that first tier of candidates, some believe it could enough to cement his standing in the minds of mainstream Republicans that he’s the best hope to take on the insurgents.

Rubio may, indeed, be surging among "mainstream" Republicans.  The only problem for Rubio is that moderate Republicans are traditionally a much smaller group in Iowa compared to "strong" conservatives and evangelicals. 

But there is an expecations game to be played, and Rubio could benefit if he moves from the low teens in support to the high teens on caucus night.  Sometimes, the appearance of momentum can be just as important as the real thing.

But a 5-point swing in Rubio's favor won't challenge the expected dominance of Cruz and Trump.  Rather, that support will more likely come from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich partisans who, given the rules of the caucuses that allow you to change your vote, might move over to Rubio's side of the room before the night is over.