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Des Moines, Iowa: Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, is being likened to a Republican Barack Obama due to his youth and penchant for soaring oratory.
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Marco Rubio: 'I am grateful to you, Iowa'
Republican candidate Marco Rubio thanks supporters in Iowa, vowing to be back next year as president.
Although opponents dismiss him as an inexperienced overachiever, Rubio emerged perhaps the biggest winner on Tuesday as a three-horse race opened up for the Republican presidential nomination following a divisive contest in Iowa.
In the rancorous Iowa campaign, Mr Trump called him a "baby", but Senator Rubio, a one-time protege of rival candidate Jeb Bush, refused to engage in insults and instead pitched himself as a "unity candidate".
Ted Cruz, the firebrand conservative senator, secured victory with 28 per cent of the vote to Donald Trump's 24 per cent, powered by support from evangelical Christians.
But Senator Rubio, who finished an unexpectedly close third on 23 per cent, saw his chances of becoming a moderate standard-bearer, and the eventual winner, increase dramatically.
Following the result, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, gave what sounded like a victory speech as he took the stage in a hotel ballroom in Des Moines.
He joked about his age and also a pair of high-heeled boots he wore during the campaign, for which he had been mercilessly ridiculed by rivals.
"This is the moment they said would never happen," Senator Rubio said. "For months they told us we had no chance because my hair wasn't grey enough and my boots were too high.
"They told me I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line. But when I am our nominee we are going to unify this party and unify the conservative moment. It's not enough to just be angry. Anger is not a plan. Anger is not solution."
The GOP will breathe a sigh of relief at the result, uneasy about the two top finishers.
Both Mr Trump and Senator Cruz, with their uncompromising rhetoric on issues such as immigration, are regarded with disdain by the Republican establishment.
The New York Times' Jeremy W. Peters wrote that Rubio's Iowa speech "carried echoes" of Barack Obama's pivotal 2008 Iowa address, after the Democrat won the caucuses in a surprise upset and went on to become president.
Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said: "Marco Rubio is a huge winner coming out of Iowa with a head of steam. This will reset the race. It's a three-person race moving forward."
Douglas Gross, a Republican strategist in Des Moines, said Senator Rubio had become the "consensus establishment candidate".
Senator Rubio survived $US30 million ($42 million) of negative advertising aimed at him by other candidates keen to snuff out his campaign in Iowa. The state has a high proportion of evangelical Christians, most of whom voted for the deeply religious Senator Cruz .
But Senator Rubio, a Catholic, received late support after telling voters that as president he would "always allow my faith to influence everything I do".
He told his final rally, "I am a follower of Jesus Christ our Saviour", and asked supporters to pray before voting, telling them the election was "in God's hands, as everything is".
Voters also supported his more moderate tone on immigration and his appeals to address societal breakdown. He is bilingual in English and Spanish – he said his story was "the essence of the American dream" – and he could be the first Hispanic commander-in-chief.
Rubio hopes to win back some of the Latino vote the party lost in recent years as it toughened its stance on immigration. A foreign policy hawk, Rubio advocates a tough approach to Iran, the Islamic State militant group and other US foes.
Iowans who supported Rubio at the caucuses said they responded to his relatively positive message and viewed him as the candidate most likely to beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should she be the Democratic nominee.
At a voting centre in Polk County, Avery Van Dyke, 18, said: "I'm for Marco Rubio. I heard him speak and he is great. I like his religious beliefs and his immigration policy. He's in the middle. He doesn't go too far like Donald Trump."
Others backed Senator Rubio because they saw him as the candidate most likely to beat Hillary Clinton. Dave Ruhs, 55, a retired engineer, said: "I like Rubio because I think he could unite us and unite the country."
Telegraph, London, Reuters