The end of my earlier post asked whether Ted Cruz would take the gloves off against Donald Trump after the GOP frontrunner went on the attack against him. The same question can be asked of the other candidates who will appear on the Las Vegas stage with Trump tomorrow night. With a couple of rare and unsuccessful exceptions (John Kasich and Rand Paul), the other GOP presidential hopefuls have steered clear of a heads-up fight against Trump. That includes Marco Rubio, although he inched closer to it on Meet the Press yesterday when Chuck Todd tried to pin him down on whether Trump is “qualified” to be president (via Daily Caller):
Here’s the full transcript of the exchange:
CHUCK TODD: About three months ago, you were asked whether Donald Trump was qualified to be president. And you said so far you hadn’t heard anything to make him qualified but that you’ll give it time. Where are you today, three months later–
MARCO RUBIO: Well, the most important thing a president will be is commander-in-chief. And that requires having an understanding of the complex issues on foreign policy. Foreign policy presents us often with hard choices, not black or white choices.
Oftentimes, your choices are down to two less than ideal outcomes, but you have to choose which one is the best one for the country. I personally believe he continues to struggle to articulate that.
CHUCK TODD: So that makes him unqualified to be commander-in-chief–
MARCO RUBIO: As of now, obviously I think I’m the most qualified. That’s why I’m running–
CHUCK TODD: I’m sorry, most qualified. But Is he qualified at all to be commander-in-chief?
MARCO RUBIO: Again, I just have very strong reservations about what he’s expressed up to this point about his understanding on some of these critical issues before our country. He still has another month before the Iowa caucus. So we’ll see if we does it. But so far–
CHUCK TODD: So you think in a month, he can–
MARCO RUBIO: –I don’t think–
CHUCK TODD: He can learn?–
MARCO RUBIO: He hasn’t done it so far, but he’s not alone. I think others in the field have confused us as well in terms of where they stand on some of these issues.
That’s not exactly a broadside, but it’s not a dodge either. Rubio has focused his criticism more on Ted Cruz, and made it in stronger terms, but this is a step in the same direction. Whether he can wait for the month (more like two) before the Iowa caucuses is another question. Rubio’s competitive in Iowa, but Cruz has invested deeply in the ground game there. Rubio might do better in New Hampshire, but he’s got to take Trump down to win there. Failing that, Rubio has to win in either South Carolina or Nevada at the minimum, but Trump has a huge advantage in Palmetto State polling. At some point, Rubio has to go on offense; waiting for Trump to implode is not a winning strategy.
On the broader question of qualification, the technical answer to that is yes. Trump is at least 35 years old and a natural born citizen of the US. A year ago, many would have questioned whether first-term Senators like Cruz and Rubio were qualified to be president, too, and would have opted for a governor. Of those candidates who are left at the top of the polling, Rubio and Cruz have the most political qualifications for the job, but in the end that doesn’t matter. Voters will decide on who’s qualified. The better question, and the direction in which Rubio’s answer leans, is whether Trump has the temperament and enough of a serious understanding of policy to win a general election. If Rubio wants to go on the attack, that’s the line he needs to take.