The biggest question leading up to the Republican presidential debate Thursday evening was: How many candidates were going to wear cowboy boots?
The debate followed three days of online banter among candidates over a superficially lighthearted TV ad targeting Sen. Marco Rubio run by the main super PAC backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign.
Sparked by news articles that have mentioned the shiny black leather boots Rubio sometimes sports, the TV ad from Right To Rise USA appears to be a spoof. But it makes the serious political charge that Rubio has changed positions on Syria, immigration and other issues.
While music from Nancy Sinatra’s song “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ ” plays, a narrator sings altered lyrics from the 1966 pop hit that make fun of Rubio for his alleged shifting of stances. It shows a dancing man in boots and a business suit, shot from the waist down.
One refrain goes: “You keep flippin’ when you shoulda not flop.”
“Flip-flop” became an enduring part of the American political lexicon in 2004, when President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign ran ads that used the term to claim that then-Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, had frequently changed positions on issues. Despite Kerry’s efforts to rebut the ads, many political analysts said they harmed his White House bid.
Perhaps for that reason, Rubio found no humor in Jeb Bush’s new TV ad.
Joe Pounder, a Rubio campaign spokesman, took to Twitter on Tuesday to deliver a barbed response:
“After spending $75m w/ nothing to show for it, @JebBush campaign exists now for sole purpose of tearing down conservatives like @marcorubio,” the tweet read.
Undaunted, Bush upped the ante the following day.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe Show,” host Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman from Florida, asked Bush whether his cowboy boots made him look taller.
“I don’t have a height issue,” Bush responded.
The rejoinder was a not-too-veiled reference to multiple claims in the blogosphere and other digital redoubts that Rubio wears his black boots to elevate his physical stature. Bush is 6 feet 3, 5 inches taller than Rubio.
Other candidates in the spirited Republican primary campaign jumped into the fracas.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, from the heart of cowboy country, tweeted: “Italian boots on the ground.”
Carly Fiorina, the Californian and former HP head, tweeted a photo of her high-heeled boots and teased Rubio “can you rock these?”
In all the guff, an earlier, more serious TV ad from the pro-Bush super PAC got overlooked.
The ad features former TV anchor Ben Swann asserting that Rubio has missed many Senate votes, going back to the period before he launched his White House bid.
Swann previously gained notoriety by challenging official accounts of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and later challenging depictions of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado.
Pounder on Thursday responded sharply to that ad.
“Jeb Bush and his allies are so desperate to attack conservative leaders like Marco Rubio that they are using a noted 9/11, Boston Marathon and Sandy Hook (Newtown) Truther as the mouthpiece for their false attacks,” Pounder said in an email. “This is a new and sad low even for a flailing campaign and (shows) exactly why we need a new generation of leadership in Washington.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose