Confession: Not until this very moment did I think of Rubio as a desperate candidate. Sure, he’s been treading water in the polls and yeah, he’s taken heat from the media for not campaigning more aggressively in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the guy knows what he’s doing. He’s the only game in town if you’re a center-righty. The endorsements will roll in, then the money will roll in, then the votes will roll in, then the delegates will roll in. He’s been playing the long game for 2016 ever since he joined the Gang of Eight three years ago. If the media can’t see that, it’s just because they’re not as good as that game as he is.

Then I read this. Now I think he’s nervous.

“If ISIS had lobbyists in Washington, they would have spent millions to support the anti-Intelligence law that was just passed with the help of some Republicans now running for president.”

During Monday’s speech, Rubio said he would bring back the old Patriot Act program, which featured the bulk collection of telephone metadata by the National Security Agency.

“I will not only restore the intelligence programs Obama and Congress have destroyed, I will strengthen them. Because ISIS does not use carrier pigeons to communicate. They use sophisticated encryption and carefully secured networks,” Rubio said in Hooksett, N.H. “It was already difficult to infiltrate them, now it is even harder.”…

In an apparent jab at Senate rivals known for their extended orations on the floor of the chamber, Rubio said that the security threats emanating from the Middle East that, “words and political stunts cannot ensure our security. ISIS cannot be filibustered.”

“ISIS cannot be filibustered.” This guy is supposed to be the Republican Pericles?

Who’s the main target for this speech? The obvious answer is Ted Cruz, as he and Rubio have been throwing punches for weeks now over the USA Freedom Act, which Cruz supported and which replaced some of the key domestic data-harvesting provisions of the Patriot Act backed by Rubio. I don’t think it’s Cruz who Rubio’s worried about right now, though. Rubio is an also-ran in Iowa, which looks to be a two-man race between Cruz and Trump. He’s competitive in New Hampshire, but Rubio is worried less about finishing behind Cruz there than finishing behind Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, which would slot one of them into the coveted “establishment alternative to Cruz and Trump” role ahead of South Carolina. Increasingly, I think Rubio’s team is prepared to suffer second- or even third-place finishes in the early states so long as they finish ahead of Christie and Bush, knowing that those two guys will then begin to fade and that Rubio will be left to clean up in the delegate-rich winner-take-all blue-state primaries later on the calendar.

Which is to say, I think this “ISIS *hearts* the USA Freedom Act” talking point he’s rolling out is aimed less at Cruz than at Christie and Bush. Rubio wants to make sure he’s seen as being at least as hawkish as the other two moderates so that hawkish center-right voters have no reason to prefer the others to him. The problem for him is that Christie is devoutly hawkish himself and especially relishes laying into critics of the Patriot Act like Rand Paul. If Rubio’s dead set on not being out-hawked by Christie, this nonsense about ISIS lobbying for the bill is the sort of thing he needs to say — no matter how many other political difficulties it creates for him. Really awkward political difficulties, as it turns out:

In fact, 21 of Rubio’s 24 congressional supporters backed the USA Freedom Act—a bill Rubio has said “weaken[s]… U.S. intelligence programs”—this year (a 25th supporter, Rep. Darin LaHood, wasn’t in Congress at the time of the vote). And of these 21 members of Congress, more than a dozen co-sponsored a version of the USA Freedom Act in the previous Congress…

Chief among Rubio’s latest endorsements is Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican congressman whose support Rubio touted widely this week in Iowa. But Gowdy was a co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act. His office did not return a request for comment. Rep. Darrell Issa, another prominent Rubio backer, also co-sponsored this year’s NSA overhaul.

Tim Scott, who looks all set to endorse Rubio sometime this month, also voted for the USA Freedom Act. So did Mike Lee, who’s not only a friend of Rubio’s but who drafted a tax plan with him. In fact, Lee didn’t just vote for the USA Freedom Act, he co-sponsored it. Is Mike Lee some sort of unwitting pawn of ISIS too? It’s fine for Rubio to disagree with allies on an issue, but if voting yes on a particular bill means the terrorists have won, maybe the people who cast those votes shouldn’t be your allies. Let’s leave the demagoguery to Trump, eh?

I wonder why Team Cruz hasn’t been more aggressive in pointing out how many of Rubio’s allies sided against him on the supposedly disqualifying USA Freedom Act vote. Maybe they fear it’ll backfire by showcasing how much support Rubio has. E.g., “Trey Gowdy, a congressman whom you know and like, agrees with Ted Cruz about national surveillance! … although he thinks Marco Rubio would be a better president.” There’s got to be a way to do that ad without it hurting Cruz, though. Why not just list Lee, Gowdy, Scott, and others as having sided with Cruz on the bill without mentioning who they’ve endorsed? Or do it in numbers. “More than 80 percent of the congressmen on Marco Rubio’s own team voted against him on national surveillance. Marco Rubio — too radical, even for his friends.” That sort of thing. Where’s that ad? It’s fine for Cruz to go around insisting he’ll turn ISIS’s territory into glow-in-the-dark glass or whatever but he’s at risk of letting Rubio define him as a dovish deviation from the Republican norm. In reality, the USA Freedom Act passed overwhelmingly in the House with heavy Republican support. Rubio’s the one who’s deviated from the norm. Make him own it.

Then again, who needs ads when you’ve got soundbites like this? Brutal:

“So Rubio’s foreign policy and national security strategy is to invade Middle Eastern countries, create power vacuums for terrorist organizations, allow their people to come to America unvetted, give them legal status and citizenship, then impose a massive surveillance state to monitor the problem,” [Cruz spokesman Alice] Stewart said. “I’m trying to figure out if it is more incoherent than dangerous or vice versa.”

Can that message win a Republican primary? In 2004, nope. In 2008 or 2012? Probably not. In 2016? I wouldn’t bet against it.