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
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
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.

What We're Following See More »
Saudis Admit Khashoggi Killed in Embassy
17 hours ago

"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."

Mueller Looking into Ties Between WikiLeaks, Conservative Groups
17 hours ago

"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."

Mueller To Release Key Findings After Midterms
17 hours ago

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.

FinCen Official Charged with Leaking Info on Manafort, Gates
17 hours ago
"A senior official working for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been charged with leaking confidential financial reports on former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and others to a media outlet. Prosecutors say that Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior adviser to FinCEN, photographed what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and other sensitive government files and sent them to an unnamed reporter, in violation of U.S. law."
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
17 hours ago

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.