Against the Grain

Will Rubio’s Assault on Trump Pay Off Tuesday?

The Floridian needs a victory somewhere to keep his candidacy alive.

Marco Rubio poses with energized supporters.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Feb. 28, 2016, 9:45 a.m.

If Marco Ru­bio’s dom­in­ant de­bate per­form­ance, re­lent­less mock­ing of Don­ald Trump’s ap­pear­ance, and in­creased scru­tiny of Trump’s busi­ness re­cord don’t give the sen­at­or from Flor­ida mo­mentum on Su­per Tues­day, it’s hard to see how he wins the GOP nom­in­a­tion. Ab­sent fresh polling, there are signs that Ru­bio is mak­ing in­roads on the long­stand­ing front-run­ner now that he’s gone full bore against him.

Ru­bio’s at­tacks on Trump have made this seem like a two-per­son race, even though Sen. Ted Cruz will be very much alive on Su­per Tues­day. Ru­bio may not have den­ted Trump’s hardened sup­port, but it’s likely he’s picked off some Cruz back­ers. Glenn Beck and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, two top Cruz sur­rog­ates, praised Ru­bio’s de­bate per­form­ance. If oth­er Cruz sup­port­ers feel that Ru­bio gives the GOP the best shot to stop Trump, ex­pect some move­ment in Ru­bio’s dir­ec­tion.

Ru­bio is also hit­ting Trump where it hurts the most: the myth­o­logy of his busi­ness acu­men. After rais­ing ques­tions about Trump Uni­versity at the de­bate, me­dia scru­tiny fol­lowed. Trump ended up ad­dress­ing the is­sue for six minutes at an Arkan­sas rally Sat­urday. Ru­bio is also draw­ing a sharp con­trast between his earned suc­cess com­pared to the for­tune that Trump in­her­ited. By call­ing Trump a fraud and cast­ing the race as a Dav­id-versus-Go­liath fight for the fu­ture of con­ser­vat­ism, he’s gal­van­iz­ing sup­port­ers and draw­ing new Re­pub­lic­ans to the fight. The crowds at his events Sat­urday in Arkan­sas and Geor­gia were among the largest of his cam­paign.

There are some clear risks with Ru­bio’s new­found ag­gres­sion. He’s stoop­ing to Trump’s level (al­beit good-naturedly), mak­ing it seem like the two can­did­ates are en­gaged in a school­yard brawl and not a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. In turn, Trump has gone nuc­le­ar against Ru­bio, and en­lis­ted one of the GOP’s best com­mu­nic­at­ors (Chris Christie) to his side. But with­in the party es­tab­lish­ment, both GOP mod­er­ates and con­ser­vat­ives were itch­ing for someone to chal­lenge Trump ef­fect­ively, and Ru­bio has stepped up like a box­er with noth­ing to lose.

Without new polling, me­dia cov­er­age of­ten feels like it’s fly­ing blind—and there’s been next-to-none done since the de­bate. If any­one oth­er than Trump had fared as poorly at the de­bate as he did, his polit­ic­al ca­reer would be on life sup­port. On Su­per Tues­day, Ru­bio will need to trans­late mo­mentum in­to a win some­where, with Vir­gin­ia’s primary and Min­nesota’s caucuses giv­ing him the best op­por­tun­ity for his first vic­tory. Voters in the 13 states with primar­ies and caucuses will de­term­ine if Trump still has his Te­flon ar­mor, or wheth­er Ru­bio’s last-minute bar­rage is chan­ging the tra­ject­ory of the race.


1. Hil­lary Clin­ton all but locked up the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion Sat­urday night, win­ning a com­mand­ing 74 per­cent of the vote in South Car­o­lina—thanks to her dom­in­ant per­form­ance with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. Mak­ing up a ma­jor­ity of the Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ate in the state, they gave Clin­ton a whop­ping 87 per­cent of their votes. If that de­gree of sup­port car­ries over to the Su­per Tues­day states in the South, Clin­ton will have com­fort­able vic­tor­ies across the board.

The biggest test for Bernie Sanders was wheth­er he could ex­pand his ap­peal with pro­gress­ive whites and mil­len­ni­als to break the Clin­ton fire­wall with minor­it­ies. Iowa and New Hamp­shire fea­ture two of the most ho­mo­gen­eous Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ates in the coun­try, and nev­er answered the cru­cial ques­tion. But with Sanders strug­gling to con­nect with non­white voters in Nevada and South Car­o­lina, it’s hard to see how he can forge a path to vic­tory—even if he re­bounds from Sat­urday’s hu­mi­li­ation.

By en­dors­ing Trump, a self-in­ter­ested Christie is bet­ting that he can be polit­ic­ally rel­ev­ant again by be­com­ing the highest-rank­ing politi­cian to sign on with the rogue can­did­ate. But if his goal is to serve as at­tor­ney gen­er­al in a fu­ture GOP pres­id­ent’s cab­in­et, he prob­ably did him­self more harm than good.  

2. Christie is es­sen­tially bet­ting that the odds of Trump win­ning the pres­id­ency are great­er than Ru­bio win­ning the GOP’s nom­in­a­tion. Even if Trump is favored to win the GOP nom­in­a­tion, his chances of de­feat­ing Clin­ton are still long (as I out­lined in my column last week). But if Ru­bio pre­vails, polls sug­gest he’d start out as a fa­vor­ite in a gen­er­al elec­tion against Clin­ton. If Ru­bio comes from be­hind to win the nom­in­a­tion, Christie’s en­dorse­ment of Trump fore­closed any op­por­tun­ity to serve in a new ad­min­is­tra­tion.  

In­deed, with many top Re­pub­lic­ans out­raged over Christie’s sur­prise Trump en­dorse­ment, it’s hard to see Christie hav­ing a polit­ic­al fu­ture after he leaves of­fice un­less Trump is in­aug­ur­ated in Janu­ary.

3. Rep. Chris Collins of New York be­came the first mem­ber of Con­gress to en­dorse Trump this week, and his own de­cision is as sur­pris­ing as the fact that Trump fi­nally re­ceived any Cap­it­ol Hill sup­port. By back­ing Trump, Collins, a former Jeb Bush sup­port­er, power­fully dis­proved the max­im that nearly every Bush back­er is plan­ning to sup­port Ru­bio.

Equally sig­ni­fic­ant is the dis­trict he rep­res­ents, an up­state New York seat in the Buf­falo area that has bled man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs over the past couple of dec­ades. Rust Belt areas like this one are Trump strong­holds, with work­ing-class voters in­tensely op­posed to free trade, and Ru­bio and Cruz will have a dif­fi­cult time cut­ting in­to the bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man’s sup­port. If Collins, a prized con­gres­sion­al re­cruit, feels com­fort­able back­ing Trump in a some­what-com­pet­it­ive seat (it voted 55 per­cent for Rom­ney in 2012), ex­pect more en­dorse­ments from law­makers if Trump con­tin­ues to rack up del­eg­ates. It’s also a sign that “blue” states with blue-col­lar con­stitu­en­cies, par­tic­u­larly New York, will be fa­vor­able to Trump on the back end of the primary cal­en­dar.

4. If Bush nev­er ran for the pres­id­ency, would Don­ald Trump even be a for­mid­able can­did­ate? It’s pos­sible that the can­did­ate run­ning as the an­ti­thes­is of Trump may have done more to boost the New York­er’s can­did­acy than any­one else. Con­sider: a) Bush’s en­trance in the race pre­ven­ted any oth­er main­stream al­tern­at­ives from get­ting at­ten­tion for months; b) his Right to Rise su­per PAC nuked the most-elect­able al­tern­at­ive in Ru­bio with mil­lions in at­tack ads while spend­ing much less against Trump; c) his can­did­acy defined the two poles of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, and gave Trump plenty of fod­der to show­case him­self as ag­gress­ively anti-Bush and be­come an anti­es­tab­lish­ment icon; d) Trump may not even have got­ten in the race if it wer­en’t for Bush cre­at­ing the pro­spect of a dyn­ast­ic coron­a­tion.

What’s amaz­ing is that Bush didn’t have enough self-aware­ness to un­der­stand that the party, after three straight anti­es­tab­lish­ment elec­tions for Re­pub­lic­ans, would not have the ap­pet­ite for an­oth­er Bush in of­fice. If Trump wins the GOP nom­in­a­tion, that mis­judg­ment will have wide-ran­ging rami­fic­a­tions for his party in the years to come.

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