WEST DES MOINES — Forced to play second fiddle to the GOP front-runners in Iowa lately, Marco Rubio is looking to make a statement in Thursday's debate, solidifying his standing in the caucus by chipping away at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
With Thursday's debate set as the marquee event between now and Monday's caucuses, Rubio is trying to rise late and make his mark, specifically in the minds of evangelicals as the campaign released a new ad focusing on the Florida senator's faith with only a handful of days remaining.
"I believe you can't have a strong America without strong families. I believe in the fundamental freedoms that make us great," Rubio said. "And I believe in God — that God has blessed America."
"I'm Marco Rubio. I approved this message because it's time for a president who will put their left hand on the Bible and their right hand in the air, and keep their promise to uphold the Constitution," Rubio said in the ad. "It's been eight years since we have had a president willing to do that. I will."
Rubio's team is also feeling momentum in the air, with a new Monmouth poll putting him with 16 percent in the state — his highest since early December in Iowa. With these new numbers, Rubio supporters are hoping he can capitalize on Thursday's debate, which will likely not involve Trump.
"I think Marco's momentum is growing," said Rep. John Moolener, who serves as Rubio's co-chair in Michigan. "He needs to have a strong debate tomorrow night ... I think it's important because every debate people have been more and more impressed with his understanding of the foreign policy issues as well as his ability to persuade and communicate the conservative vision."
One of the more consistent debaters in the field, Rubio is looking to nail down voters on the fence -- especially as Trump seems set to skip the debate as his feud with Fox News and host Megyn Kelly, who is set to co-moderate the debate, carries on.
"I think he's got the right heart and the right attitude, and he comes at it from the right place. It's really not about him it's for. He really believes in giving back an opportunity that was afforded to his family and himself," said Bryan Moon, 54, from West Des Moines. "Whereas Trump — who I was on the fence about — told me within the last few hours that it's all about him."
Moon also pointed to Rubio getting the stamp of approval from Rep. Trey Gowdy and Sen. Joni Ernst (who did not endorse him but made supportive comments) as reasons for him being "very close" to backing the Florida senator.
"I'm probably on the two-yard line, and if all goes well tomorrow I'm going to be all about Marco," Moon said.
While Trump's absence will cast a shadow over Thursday's debate if he does not attend, Rubio supporters are not in the least bit sad to see him out of the spotlight for once.
"I don't like Donald Trump at all," said Jeff Wynn, 38, of Dallas Center. "Everything that he's preaching that he's going to do is impossible the way he's trying to use his power. His money doesn't mean nothing — I don't care about that. I want somebody that actually supports the United States."
"I think [Rubio] means well for the people of the United States," said Wynn, who said he's committed to caucus for Rubio. "Everything he does, I'm for. He's got a good, level head, and he means well. If you watch him in the debates, [the other candidates] are fighting back and forth, he said I want it to be for the people of the United States, and that's what I want for the next president."
Rubio spent debate eve rallying over 300 attendees outside of the Iowa capital city, including Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who introduced him.
After Thursday's debate, Rubio is set to spend the final three days before Monday's caucus in Iowa, with four events on both Friday and Saturday.