Cycles in presidential campaigns begin with hopeful conjecture, outright lies, blind tabloid items that can’t ever be proved or disproved. This week the Marco Rubio cycle began. Marco Rubio is now the “front-runner” for the Koch brothers’ support and cash, the New York Daily News reported yesterday morning, citing a source “who ran into David Koch at a recent event in Manhattan.” That sourcing sounds pretty shaky — David Koch has never seemed like someone who blurts out his political plans to the restroom attendant, though, who knows, people always surprise you — but of course it’s hard to imagine that the item isn’t true. By the time Rubio and Donald Trump arrived in Las Vegas yesterday to speak in separate events at the same time, the hype seemed almost anxious: “High Noon Out West Between Trump and Rubio the Kid,” the Times had announced this morning. Trump has recently lost interest in insulting Jeb Bush and started insulting Rubio. As an insult comic, the Donald has lately been somewhat overrated, and he has taken a grasping line on Rubio: that the younger man was sweaty and needed to gulp water during the second presidential debate, that this marks him as a lightweight. Hydration issues aside, that Trump has trained his own sights on the Floridian (much as the press has, and evidently the Kochs) has helped to confirm that the party’s outsider energies may be dissipating a bit. In this new phase the race’s pivotal figure may no longer be Trump, the most bombastic candidate, but Rubio, the most talented one.
If the Times is right and Las Vegas was the site of the showdown, then the symbolism isn’t especially auspicious for the casinomagnate turned populist politician. Trump is inescapably the candidate of the Strip, of the Vegas illusion, of everything about the city that feels gaudy and impermanent. Rubio can lay claim to a more human experience here. As a child Rubio spent six years living in a working-class Las Vegas neighborhood while his father worked here as a banquet-hall bartender — “behind a portable bar,” his son likes to say in his speeches, and that portable carries some feeling for the precariousness of working-class life. The casinos offered little for kids, and so the Rubio immigrant parents took him driving past the grand Vegas mansions, Liberace’s among them, explaining to their kids that this kind of success was possible for them in this country. As Nevada’s politics have matured — as the place has become increasingly Hispanic and increasingly pivotal, as the state’s key figure has become Brian Sandoval, the Hispanic Republican governor — they have left behind Trump’s great themes, of the certainty that America will always win, and moved right into Rubio’s, of whether the promise of the American Dream that the country holds out to immigrants is still possible.