Media types on Twitter seem to think this is a fake-out, designed to lull Trump into complacency. Trump’s the real target tonight, as he’ll soon find out.
That would completely undermine the strategy Rubio’s been following for the past month. But maybe the hour’s so late that he has no choice.
Rubio has yet to aggressively engage Trump — and those briefed on his strategy say he’s unlikely to do so on Thursday night.
The Florida senator has concluded that going after Trump would accomplish little because the businessman’s supporters are deeply committed and unlikely to swing Rubio’s way. Inciting a confrontation with Trump onstage would create drama but wouldn’t help the senator gain voters, something he badly needs as he looks for his first primary win.
Instead, Rubio’s team has decided his best bet is to focus fire on Cruz. They think the Texas senator’s voters are less locked in and could swing Rubio’s way should Cruz fade. The only way to dislodge Trump, Rubio’s advisers say, is to turn it into a two-man race — meaning that they first need to get Cruz out of the way.
You know what the strategy is. I wrote about it yesterday, Ross Douthat wrote about it today. Rubio’s only chance of winning, in theory, is for Cruz and Kasich to exit the stage and give him a true one on one with Trump. There are all sorts of reasons to doubt Rubio would prevail even if that happened — here’s the latest evidence that he wouldn’t — but obviously neither he nor Cruz will beat Trump if they continue to stay in and divide the conservative vote. To even have a chance of winning, one needs to go. So Rubio’s trying to make that happen. Knock out Cruz, hope Kasich folds, and then take your chances in Florida. If that’s the game plan, of course he should go after Cruz tonight. Why the hell would he attack Trump when that means Trump will spend the next week attacking him? That’s exactly what Cruz needs right now, with his last chance of a campaign revival dependent upon him winning Texas and outperforming Rubio in the south next Tuesday. Rubio can worry about war with Trump next week, after Cruz is hopefully gone.
But there’s a problem with that. Lots of conservatives have begun to notice that Marco doesn’t have much to say about the centrist ogre who’s threatening to take over the party. Trump is the dire threat here, not Cruz, yet Rubio seems content to prioritize his own ambitions over conservatives’ needs by wrecking Cruz while Trump sails along winning primaries. Cruz spent six months last year bro-hugging Trump but he did finally unload on him in January (and won Iowa for his trouble). He’s been fighting him nearly singlehandedly ever since. Now Rubio’s following the same bro-hug strategy — disagreeing with Trump from time to time, yes, but usually very politely and only on select policy matters. The difference is, Trump’s 19 days away from all but clinching the nomination if he hasn’t already. There’s no time for another round of bro-hugging. And the more Rubio insists on it, the more he risks alienating righties who are desperate for a champion. Philip Klein warns him:
If Rubio were to effectively take on Trump, he’d have a lot of conservative cheering him on, and he’d prove to undecided voters that he’d be the best person to be in the final two, and simultaneously help fight the notion that he’s too wet behind the ears to take on Clinton. If, instead, he overthinks things, goes after Cruz, and lets his last best hope of confronting Trump before Super Tuesday go up in smoke, he’ll come off looking like a wuss who isn’t ready to take on Trump, let alone Hillary Clinton, and will demoralize many conservatives in the process.
Given that Rubio is a football fanatic, let me use a football anology. Would Rubio rather that his Dolphins go into the last week of the regular season depending on other teams losing to make the playoffs? Or would he rather they control their own destiny? If he’d rather control his own destiny, he should go directly at Trump rather than craft a strategy that’s contingent on other candidates dropping out.
Frankly, Cruz’s best strategy against Rubio tonight may be to lay off him, focus on Trump, and then, if Rubio’s following through on the bro-hug plan, to point it out to the audience. “Here I am, making the case for conservatism against Donald Trump,” Cruz could say, “and the only candidate that Marco’s interested in attacking is me.” Rubio has an easy comeback to that — you laid off Trump for half a year — but conservatives weren’t panicked about Trump then the way they are now. Cruz does bear responsibility for enabling Trump by granting him legitimacy as a genuine populist voice for grassroots conservatives but he’s been at war with Trump for two months. Rubio has yet to land a single hard shot that I can remember. If I were Cruz, I’d make very sure undecided conservatives have that in mind on Super Tuesday. Especially since, for the moment, Cruz is the only one of the final three anti-Trumpers to be leading Trump in his home state. Rubio looks to be headed for a decisive loss in Florida; Kasich is in contention in Ohio but has no way of building momentum before then. Only Cruz, who’s up by 15 points in Texas in a new poll released today, seems likely to claim a home-field win, which would give him two victories against Trump versus zero for the rest of the field. If Cruz is on his way out of the race, he should go out as a warrior for conservatism by taking it to Trump and Trump alone. He’ll have the gratitude of the right, even in a losing effort, and he’ll come off better than Rubio will from his endless conflict-aversion strategy with Trump.
Go read Rich Lowry on “the coming anti-Trump onslaught.” If it doesn’t come from Cruz or Rubio, it’ll surely come from Hillary Clinton.