His brain-trust had concluded in the spring of 2014, a year before launching, that the Republican nominee would have to transcend the party’s ideological and demographic divides. This was evident in their refusal to prioritize one state over another: Too much time in Iowa and you’re a conservative courting evangelicals; too much in New Hampshire and you’re a moderate wooing the establishment. Some Rubio lieutenants insisted until the bitter end that their strategy was the right one, and that Trump’s emergence rendered all of the campaign playbooks irrelevant.
Others aren’t so sure. “Primaries are always about base. And you have to have a base in a divided field,” Axelrod says. “Rubio tried to be everybody’s second choice, hoping that if the field narrowed he would become people’s first choice. That was a flawed theory. And it contributed to a sense of trying to be all things to all people, and that hurt him. He was a man without a country.”
Axelrod is sympathetic to Rubio’s concerns about not running as an “establishment” Republican in an election defined by anti-government wrath, but argues that it was his only plausible path to the nomination. “They didn’t want to get branded with the scarlet letter, so they had no brand at all,” he says. “And one thing is for sure: If you have no brand at all, you’re not going to win.”
Insofar as Rubio had a trademark, it was his seriousness and substance on policy. He cultivated a reputation in the Senate as a wonk who dined with think-tankers and put himself through crash courses on international affairs and economics. (His skeptics argued it was a careful bit of brand-building in preparation for the presidential run to come.) He carefully guarded that image on the campaign trail, playing up his policy credentials, avoiding any engagement with Trump, and sticking to the thoughtful, inspirational themes he’d established.
But as the race slipped away, so too did Rubio’s self-discipline. After a lopsided loss to Trump in Nevada, the campaign decided that it was finally time to take on the front-runner. Rubio spent the February 25 debate in Houston poking holes in Trump’s résumé, irritating the billionaire real-estate mogul with unprecedented effectiveness. His performance earned rave reviews. But three days later, at a university rally in Virginia before Super Tuesday, he took the anti-Trump onslaught in a new and uncharacteristic direction, mocking his opponent’s “spray tan” and “small hands,” a below-the-belt reference to Trump’s manhood. As the college crowd went berserk, Rubio’s aides were besieged with dazed and irate missives from donors, allies, and friends. Rubio’s reputation as conservatism’s upbeat, optimistic standard-bearer — so meticulously crafted over so many years — was dissolving before their eyes. They feared it could mark not just the demise of his 2016 campaign, but the collapse of what once seemed a bright political future.