Rubio to Cruz: If I'm so establishment, why is the establishment spending $20 million on ads to defeat me?

As a great man once said, it’s a fine line between stupid and clever. This retort to Cruz’s claim that the establishment is moving from Rubio to Trump has a foot on each side of the line.

“Well, then why is Ted Cruz spending so much money attacking me?” Rubio shot back Thursday morning when asked about Cruz’s latest barb. After taking part in a forum on national security here, the Florida senator dismissed Cruz’s two-pronged attack, pointing to the fact that he continues to have more money spent attacking him than any other Republican candidate as evidence that he’s still viewed as serious threat.

He also noted that most of the attacks against him are coming from the GOP establishment itself. “Every time I’ve ever run for office, whether it’s to the Senate or now as president, I’ve had to take on the Republican establishment and we’re doing it again now,” Rubio said. “For example, I’ve had over $20 million spent attacking me. That’s not grassroots money, that’s money from the establishment.”

That’s a shrewd counterargument to Cruz’s attack — follow the money to see if you want to know who establishmentarians fear — and he’s not exaggerating about the amount. According to one NYT reporter’s calculation, Rubio has faced $22 million in attack ads in just the past seven weeks. And the vast majority of it is indeed coming from “the establishment.” But there’s a footnote:

“The establishment” here consists almost entirely of Jeb’s Super PAC. They’ve launched an all-out “kill Rubio” effort in New Hampshire and beyond, and for once they’re doing a pretty effective job. By Rubio’s logic, if Team Jeb suddenly dropped $10 million in attack ads to blow up a surging John Kasich, Kasich would no longer be an establishment candidate because he’d now be in “the establishment’s” crosshairs. Team Marco is quick to note that his numbers are steady despite the deluge of negativity, but that’s not exactly true. Starting in late December and continuing into the beginning of this month, he rattled off four straight polls in NH where he was at 14-15 percent. In the seven polls since then, including today’s stunner from WBUR, he hasn’t hit 15 percent again and has hit 14 percent just once — and that poll, from ARG, was supplanted by a more recent ARG poll dropping him to 10 percent. In three of those seven polls, he didn’t even crack double digits. His unfavorable rating in New Hampshire, per yesterday’s CNN survey, has climbed nine points in just a month, leaving Rubio with an overall rating (58/32) that’s comparable to Ted Cruz’s (55/30). It’s hard to argue that the barrage from Team Jeb, combined with Christie hitting Rubio as an inexperienced kid and Cruz hitting him as a RINO, hasn’t taken a toll.

In fact, don’t look now but Rubio’s overall poll average in New Hampshire is creeping ever closer to Jeb Bush’s. As I write this, RCP has Rubio at 10.8 to Jeb’s 8.3 — but that doesn’t include the new WBUR numbers, which have Bush leading Rubio by three points. (That makes four polls in a row where Bush is no worse than two points behind Rubio in New Hampshire.) It’s entirely possible, if this trend continues, that Rubio will slip to fifth place in the RCP average next week behind Trump, Cruz, Kasich, and Bush. Christie has slipped a bit himself in New Hampshire lately, polling consistently in the high single digits after about a month of cracking 10 percent, which is evidence that Rubio’s attacks are working on him too. But that brings me back to the initial point: This isn’t a case of “the establishment” trying to blow up one candidate, it’s a matter of various center-righties and their respective arsenals of fatcat donors trying to clear a lane for their guy to become the “establishment” champion. Kasich is winning for the moment because, ironically, everyone forgot to try to blow him up. Bush was too obsessed with smothering the younger, more appealing guy from his political past to bother with bombing Kasich. Maybe it’s too late now.

More on Team Jeb’s “kill Rubio” effort:

[The $20 million spent on attacking Rubio] would account for about a third of the Right to Rise advertising budget so far.

Broken down by state, $8.5 million has been spent attacking him in Iowa, $7.5 million in New Hampshire and $2.7 million in South Carolina. The remainder has been spent on national cable television — mainly Fox News.

The content and theme of the attacks are varied. First, Mr. Bush’s allies painted Mr. Rubio, a first-term senator, as an overeager opportunist seeking a promotion while he was shirking his responsibilities in the Senate. They have started portraying him more recently as a flip-flopper, most harshly in an ad that shows a cartoon of Mr. Rubio superimposed over a weather vane. The spot accuses him of switching his position on immigration legislation for political purposes.

The big surge of congressional endorsements for Rubio hasn’t emerged either. Why? Well, partly because of Jeb Bush:

The reticence around Rubio was punctuated by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s surprise move into Jeb Bush’s camp last week. The South Carolina senator, seen as one of the few congressional endorsements that could move the needle after he dropped out of the presidential race last month, went on to imply that Rubio is too green to be president.

Some senior GOP lawmakers who got behind Bush when expectations were still high say they’re not ready to jump ship yet but will reassess if the former Florida governor drops out…

“Rubio has a lot of support. Jeb has more,” [Rep. Adam] Kinzinger said. “I’m 100 percent with Jeb. If at some point he decides he’s not running anymore — which I don’t foresee happening — but if he does, then we’ll take a look after that. But you know, Rubio may drop out too.”

All of this is in service to Team Jeb’s master plan of somehow maneuvering Trump into a two-man race, with Bush emerging as nominee because most of the party supposedly can’t stand Trump. Destroy Rubio, count on Trump to destroy Cruz, and then it’s a death match between the two of them. The irony, though, is that killing Rubio doesn’t seem to be moving big donors towards Jeb in an all-out effort to stop Trump. On the contrary, Bush donors are reportedly pissed off at Jeb Super PAC chief Mike Murphy for wasting so much cash on destroying Rubio, whom they like and who would be a real threat to Trump as the last center-right candidate standing. If there’s any movement among big donors lately, it seems to be towards Trump in the interest of stopping Cruz in Iowa. (Whether that’s because those donors now see it as a two-man race between Trump and Cruz or because they’re taking a high-stakes gamble that Trump will be beaten by one of their favorites once Cruz is out of the way is unclear.) The point is, though, that increasingly it seems like Jeb Bush’s legacy from this race will be enabling Donald Trump’s victory, first by galvanizing populist support for Trump with the specter of another Bush presidency and now by destroying the one guy on the center-right who’s equipped to beat Trump and Cruz in a three-way race. Whether that’s being driven by resentment and jealousy of Rubio specifically or a feeling more generally that if Jeb can’t have the nomination then no moderate should is known only to Jeb and Murphy themselves. But that question is all that will remain once Bush 2016 is gone.

But hey. Rubio’s biggest fans will tell you that he’s the chosen one, a once-in-a-generation talent, a communicator unparalleled in the Republican Party, the avatar of a new age of conservatism. They don’t like the Obama comparison but to hear them describe Rubio, they sound a lot like O-bots circa 2008. If Rubio really is that singular a talent, even $20 mil from the Right to Rise Keystone Kops shouldn’t be able to stop him. Why hadn’t he already consolidated Christie’s, Kasich’s, and Bush’s support before Murphy went nuclear on him?

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