By James Oliphant
DES MOINES (Reuters) - Texas Senator Ted Cruz was victorious in the first Republican nomination contest of the 2016 White House race, but there was another big winner in Iowa on Monday night: Florida Senator Marco Rubio and the Republican establishment.
For months, Cruz and Donald Trump’s brand of angry, scorched-earth, insurgent politics defined the race for the Republican presidential nomination, while more moderate candidates tussled with themselves to try to mount a challenge to them.
The hope among Republican party leaders has long been for a champion to emerge. And on Monday, that person was Rubio, who finished a hair behind Trump and only a few points behind Cruz.
When Rubio took the stage in a hotel ballroom after the final results were announced, he gave what amounted to a victory speech. “This is the moment they said would never happen,” the first-term senator said. “For months, they told us we had no chance.”
The fight for the nomination has unmistakably entered a new phase.
“We have a three-way race,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
Rubio’s night shocked Iowa political observers like Robinson, who had predicted Rubio would wind up far behind Trump and Cruz, with perhaps around 15-18 percent of the vote. He finished with 23 percent.
Rubio's performance will strengthen his argument that supporters of other moderate, establishment candidates such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio governor John Kasich should throw their support, and their money, behind him.
Rubio could use the extra cash. His campaign committee raised just over $14 million from donors in the fourth quarter of 2015, putting him well behind Cruz, who brought in more than $20 million. To date, his campaign has raised nearly $40 million, while Cruz has raised $47 million.
Rubio’s Super PAC, which can raise unlimited funds as long as it does not coordinate directly with him, also trails the PACs supporting Cruz. It pulled in $30.5 million last year, while Cruz’s PACs raked in $42 million. Trump, a billionaire, largely self-funds his campaign.
Rubio's third place finish in Iowa means he "is the consensus establishment candidate," said Douglas Gross, a Republican strategist in Des Moines.
Rubio flew to New Hampshire on Monday evening and will likely begin making that argument to voters there ahead of the state's primary, or early nominating contest, on Feb. 10.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, Rubio railed at many of the same targets as Cruz and Trump: Islamic State, immigration and President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, popularly known as Obamacare. But he embedded his criticism within a more optimistic, inclusive message. The American-born son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio would be the first Hispanic president.
“It’s not enough to just be angry,” Rubio told voters during last-minute campaigning in the weekend before the caucus vote. “Anger is not a plan. Anger is not solution.”
Iowans who supported Rubio at the caucuses told Reuters they responded to his positive message and viewed him as the best candidate to beat Hillary Clinton in the November election, should she be the Democratic nominee.
“I’ve been looking for someone who really will be an agent for change and I think Marco Rubio will be that guy,” said Kevin Huerkamp, 56, of Clive, Iowa.
According to election returns, Rubio swamped both Cruz and Trump in Iowa’s urban areas - Des Moines, Iowa City, Davenport -suggesting that he could prosper when the Republican race progresses to denser, more populated states such as Florida and Ohio.
(This story has been refiled to replace Rubio's name in last paragraph with Trump's)
(Additional reporting by Grant Smith, editing by Ross Colvin)