The great winnowing of the Republican presidential field has cast off its hangers-on and, when the remaining contenders meet Thursday for the last time before Super Tuesday votes, there will be but five survivors.
One of them, Marco Rubio, needs the forum in Houston more than others.
The freshman Senator from Florida has started jelling Establishment-minded opposition to frontrunner Donald Trump. The process began last weekend, when Rubio showed a strong second-place finish in South Carolina’s primary and effectively forced one-time-mentor Jeb Bush from the race. In days since, Rubio has been working hard to line up support from donors, fellow lawmakers and former Bush backers.
“Whatever they need, I’m on the next plane,” said one former Bush aide who is ready to work for Rubio’s bid. “My guy lost. But we cannot let Donald Trump be our nominee.”
This, of course, is taking place behind-the-scenes and out of the minds of most voters. The mechanics of campaigns matter, but they make for lousy television.
That’s why Rubio needs the debate, set to be broadcast on CNN, to make his case to voters at home ahead of the voting on March 1. On that date, 12 states—Alaska to Georgia—have their nominating contests and award 624 delegates to the nominating convention. It will be the biggest day on the calendar in terms of delegates, and one that will either show Republicans coalescing around an alternative to Trump, or Trump continuing his unstoppable march to the nomination.
Rubio is now trying to position himself between Trump and the GOP’s convention in Cleveland. He is leaning on newfound support to help him get his scrappy campaign up and running at full speed in new states, and he is working the phones hard in search of new donors. “He wasted no time,” said a former Bush bundler who hasn’t decided if he will accept Rubio’s offer to join the campaign.
Indeed, many activists and donors are still not ready to go all-in for Rubio. After all, they have spent the last seven years trashing another first-term Senator with a compelling life story who ran for the White House: Barack Obama. Changing the party affiliation after a name on a ballot will not undo years of nurtured resentment.
Even so, there aren’t many better choices for Establishment-minded conservatives. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is another first-termer with ambition, but his rigid orthodoxy has won him few friends in Washington. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has been campaigning as an unerring optimist, but has yet to do well outside of New Hampshire. And retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a first-time candidate who has stumbled, remains a favorite for some religious voters who has yet to see any meaningful success.
That leaves Rubio, who has gobs of raw political talent and potential. He has been collecting delegates with second- or third-place finishes, and a flood of endorsements has kept his press aides busy with announcements. But he has yet to show that he is the best vessel for the GOP to stop Trump’s takeover of the party. Rubio is trying to convince them that he is, ahead of Tuesday’s balloting. Thursday night’s debate might be his last chance to reach those voters.
This article was originally published on Time.com.