Spend a few quality hours glued to cable news in Iowa, and you might forget Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
To be sure, there’s a commercial or two tut-tutting Trump as unserious and ominously featuring clips of his younger, longer-maned self sounding like a Democrat. But he’s not the king of the airwaves.
That distinction goes to one man — or rather the political committee supporting him: Jeb Bush.
Bush campaigns — hard — as the anti-Trump. His super PAC, however, has a different target: Marco Rubio.
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In one spot, the Right to Rise PAC darkly casts Rubio as a proponent of immigration “amnesty.”
Another portrays Rubio — literally — as a weather vane who flips positions depending on the prevailing political wind.
Other ads have painted Rubio as absent from work, untrustworthy and overly ambitious.
They are not the only attacks on the airwaves. A spot by Conservative Solutions PAC, which is supporting Rubio, dismisses Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton as vestiges of a forgettable past.
A couple of ads hit Trump’s nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
But Bush and Rubio are impossible to ignore because their campaigns and super PACs have spent so much cash on TV.
According to an analysis by NBC News based on data by SMG Delta, which tracks political spending on advertising, Right to Rise has spent nearly $15 million in Iowa alone — more than anyone else so far this election. Rubio’s team — his campaign, Conservative Solutions and an affiliated political nonprofit organization, Conservative Solutions Project — came in second, with nearly $12 million. That tops the next biggest spenders, Clinton ($9 million) and her chief opponent, Bernie Sanders ($7 million).
The same holds true across the country, NBC News found: Team Bush has outspent the rest of the field, Republican and Democratic, followed by Team Rubio.
The message is getting through. Several Iowa voters have questioned Rubio in recent days about his immigration stance, even though he’s got a standard stump-speech line declaring, “I do not support amnesty.” Rubio’s poll numbers ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary have stalled, and his strategists have blamed the ad onslaught.
“When someone spends tens of millions of dollars lying about you, it doesn’t help,” Rubio adviser Todd Harris told reporters in West Des Moines on Tuesday. He took particular offense to the latest ad that Right to Rise quietly rolled out, highlighting Rubio’s questionable spending on a Republican Party of Florida charge card when he was in the state House.
“They’re attacking Marco on an issue that was discounted by Gov. Bush in 2010 when he endorsed Marco, was discounted again by Gov. Bush in 2012 when he said that Marco should be the vice president, and is going to be discounted by every voter who sees it because they see it for what it is: a last-ditch, desperate attempt.”
None of this is evident in their home state of Florida, which doesn’t hold its presidential primary until March 15 — and where 10 big media markets make it one of the most expensive states for campaigns to advertise. As a result, some of Rubio’s and Bush’s most loyal hometown supporters may not know how ugly the ad war has gotten.
Rubio has been crying foul.
“They are spending a million dollars a week attacking me,” Rubio said at a West Des Moines rally on Wednesday night. “This money wasn’t raised $50 at a time,” he added, alluding to Bush, but by “people that believe we need to elect the next person in line.”
In an earlier interview on Iowa radio, he seemed to make reference to the latest ad quietly rolled out by Right to Rise.
“When it gets to the personal stuff, which is what we’re starting to see now, that’s not good for the Republican Party, and it’s almost free advertising for Hillary Clinton,” he said, according to audio recorded by BuzzFeed News.
Bush himself hasn’t taken aim at Rubio, his one-time political protégé, since a feeble attempt to highlight his Senate absences in an October debate. Still, Bush, who can’t legally coordinate with Right to Rise, could send the super PAC a message by publicly denouncing its strategy. He hasn’t done so. Quite the opposite: He’s indicated Rubio — and all his other rivals — should stop whining and man up.
“This is beanbag time,” he said last week in New Hampshire. “I mean, you think this is ugly — wait until Hillary Clinton and the Clinton hit machine gets going.”
Later, he declared, “I’ve got my big-boy pants on.”
Even without any Right to Rise ads against him in places like Florida, Rubio’s popularity has remained stagnant. And Conservative Solutions PAC has spent its own millions putting down Bush, Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the candidates whom Rubio’s backers consider his biggest threats. They are less wary for now of Trump, thinking Rubio is poised to be the anti-Trump. But that long game has allowed Bush to remind voters that only he — and, recently, Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — has put money behind Trump attacks on the air.
“Everybody else seems to be in the witness protection program,” Bush said in Des Moines on Wednesday.
For his part, Rubio has used the tussle to argue to conservative voters that he is not an establishment candidate — if Bush donors are the ones funding an ad campaign against him. Rubio is also trying to recruit some Bush backers who privately cringe at Right to Rise’s approach.
“More than $22 million,” read an emailed fundraising pitch from Rubio this week. “That’s how much money has already been spent attacking me this cycle — the vast majority of it from the Republican establishment, most of it in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei is in Iowa for the caucuses. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei