Dave Weigel sums up the new contrast in styles:
Trump attacks, recapped:
Cruz: He doesn't understand the Constitution
Rubio: I made that old man piss himself
— daveweigel (@daveweigel) February 26, 2016
I could sit here and tell you that none of this will matter (much) to Tuesday’s results but I’ve already been scolded on Twitter this morning by righties for being inappropriately eeyorish. I can understand that. It’s one thing to doom-say after the bloodbath in Nevada, when every conservative in America is ready to drink Windex, it’s another to do it the morning after a debate in which Trump finally got punched in the face and there’s suddenly new hope that he’s not a sure thing after all. So I’ll be as optimistic as I can here: Obviously this strategy, of diminishing Trump as a clown by clowning on him relentlessly, is worth trying. As Weigel says, Cruz went all-in at the start of January on the idea that if Trump could be exposed as a phony conservative, that would finish him off among tea partiers and evangelicals. In Cruz’s defense, he really had no choice; “I’m the most conservative” has been his game plan since he joined the Senate and he was true to it to the bitter end. But we are, I fear, near the end for him now that Trump’s beaten him among his core voters and looks set to do it again next week. You’re just not going to win by RINOizing him. Trump doesn’t care about the Constitution? His supporters couldn’t care less. If anything, they’ll be openly hostile to constitutional procedure if Trump gets elected and finds himself hobbled by obstruction in Congress. Why would an authoritarian who loves Trump want him to respect the authority of the Constitution?
So here’s Rubio ditching Cruz’s approach and trying a new one-two punch: Trump is a con artist who exploits the little guy, whatever he may say on the stump, and also he’s a giant douche. Anti-Trumpers are in raptures on Twitter over this clip, watching Rubio take it to the bully with pure gleeful scorn, and I’m not immune to it. It’s pure catharsis after a month of setbacks, a surprise rout by an army that’s been in what feels like perpetual retreat. (It’s surprisingly funny in parts too. “How do you bankrupt a casino?” made me laugh.) And Rubio’s right about Trump’s bizarre string of misspelled tweets this morning. They may not teach spelling at Trump University but I’m pretty sure it’s a prerequisite at Wharton. This is petty, silly stuff but pettiness is the currency of this primary, as Trump’s last thousand goofs on Rubio for sweating too much should have told you. If you like, we can sit here and spitball the strategic virtues of the “mock Trump” strategy all day long — it shows Rubio’s not a beta male who’s afraid of Trump; it punctures Trump’s 10-foot-tall mystique by making him look ridiculous; it places Trump on defense, a role he’s not used to playing; it lures the media into giving Rubio lots of free airtime (“Oh. My. God. It is ON.” said CNN’s anchors after watching this); and, by setting up a “Trump versus Rubio” dynamic, it marginalizes Cruz before Super Tuesday. Essentially, Rubio’s going full Trump on Trump here. Like I say, though, I think the power of this comes not from its strategic genius — just wait until Trump counterattacks — but from the catharsis it’s offering to people who desperately need it. Whether it moves the polls or, er, not. At this point, what does Rubio, or the movement at large, have to lose?