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From left: Gov. John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, on stage for the debate of Republican presidential hopefuls at the University of Colorado in Boulder, October 28, 2015. Democratic presidential hopefuls in 2020 face the daunting task of vying for attention in a series of debates including 20 candidates. Republicans had a similar problem in 2016. Image Credit: NYT

For the kickoff of his 2020 US presidential re-election campaign in Florida recently, President Donald Trump was surrounded by thousands of devoted supporters in “Keep America Great” hats.

More notably, though, he was also joined by a man who once said he would “never get control of” the Republican Party. That man, reportedly “smiling and chuckling,” was Florida’s senior senator, Marco Rubio.

Rubio is hardly the only Republican who has come around as a Trump supporter. But he joins a cohort of Republicans — like the former Gov. of South Carolina and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (also in attendance at the reelection rally), Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. All of these people used to be severe critics of Trump, or at least the world’s most lacklustre defenders. A lot can change in three years.

Is their support of Trump heartfelt or merely strategic? The exact mix depends a lot on which political figure we’re assessing. But there is almost certainly at least a decent scoop of straight-up political realism mixed in with perhaps a dollop or large scoop of genuine warmth. They all want to be president. And they are all, in different ways, setting themselves up to run in the 2024 election.

It’s worth remembering three things. First, Trump has a close to 90% approval rating with Republican voters. Second, and despite that, he is very politically weak for a president heading into a reelection and could easily lose. And third, probably all of these figures want to run for and indeed become president one day — ideally sooner rather than later. Most of them probably assume there’s at least a 50-50 chance Trump loses in November 2020. And if they make nice with him now, they might be able to nab his endorsement or at least the support of a big chunk of his highly motivated voters when they step up to presidential plate sometime in 2023.

Cynical? Yes. Smart? Probably. For Rubio, it’s worth remembering a few key points. First, he is the son of immigrants from Cuba. He has a strong instinct for survival, even if it entails taking extreme measures.

Back in 2008, he endorsed for president former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas — patron saint of big-government social conservatives everywhere and arch-enemy of the uber-free-market Club for Growth. Just two years later, Rubio was elected to the Senate as a straight-up tea party darling who was endorsed by that same Club for Growth. After being elected, Rubio moved to the Republican mainstream, championing comprehensive immigration reform. Now he has more often than not supported Trump.

What has persisted is Rubio’s strong desire to influence — some might say single-handedly dictate — United States foreign policy with regard to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Tom Cotton may also step up to the plate — and it’s likely, because his presidential ambition seems boundless. Despite nationalist foreign policy forays from Trump, Cotton has maintained his Dick Cheney-esque neoconservative credentials, but he has also moved in the president’s direction on immigration, proposing “reforms” that favour a merit-based system and a 50% reduction in legal immigration. He’s actually more restrictionist than Trump where guest worker visas are concerned and opposed the administration’s plan this year to allow 30,000 more of them.

Haley, after endorsing Rubio in 2016, then embracing and going to work for the president, has since leaving the administration focused on starting her own policy group, Stand for America. Her group appears to maintain a strong emphasis on China hawkishness, which should appeal to Trump and his core supporters — probably even more than immigration hawkishness on the part of a Cotton does or would. But it’s also focused on mainstream Republican concerns like taxes. Some people have speculated that should the president implode before 2020, Haley’s organisation could act as a launching pad that would allow her to jump into the race at the last minute — and if not then, certainly in 2024.

There are other Republican heirs apparent to Trump — Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska have often been discussed. As it stands, it looks as if Rubio is getting more actual results from his embrace of the president than the others — though Haley’s service as United Nations ambassador certainly filled a gap in her resume that should better position her if she runs.

But for now, like all of them, Rubio will have to tolerate non-stop mocking on Twitter for making nice with Trump and just quietly remind himself that on what he truly cares about — Latin American policy — he is winning.

Precious few other politicians can say the same, perhaps especially Cotton and Graham, who aptly demonstrated last week that they do not have the ear of the president on Iran — something that raises real questions about the cost-benefit calculus that has guided their political manoeuvring for 2020 and beyond.

—New York Times News Service

Elizabeth Mair is a noted American political and communications consultant.