Sen. Marco Rubio is terrified of Donald Trump.
How else to explain his failure to take on the Republican front-runner? He says he wants to be positive and unite the party with his vision for the country.
“I didn’t run for office to tear up other Republicans,“ Rubio said on NBC’s Today show Wednesday morning, after he came in a distant second to the Donald in the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday.
He seems to believe he has a non-aggression pact with Trump. And Trump’s pretty much left him alone — though he has unkindly drawn attention to the senator’s perspiration — indicating that he’ll be nice to Rubio as long as Rubio is nice to him. Rubio wants to keep it that way.
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But sooner, not later, Rubio is going to have to go further than just asking Trump to be more specific. The Florida senator’s strategy of taking shots at a less-fearsome opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz, makes him look like the kid on the playground who tries to curry favor with the bully to avoid being bullied himself.
That only ensures peace for so long. The bully eventually will turn his full attention to the toady.
Take Nevada, where Rubio lived as a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and won the endorsement of Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon eminence. He spent the week hitting Cruz, calling him a liar and rattling him badly enough that he had to fire a top aide for putting out an ad suggesting that Rubio was soft on the Bible.
Rubio triumphed over Cruz by a few points, but so what? Even if Rubio’s attacks on Cruz had so damaged the Texas senator that he’d dropped out, and all Cruz’s votes went to Rubio, Rubio still wouldn’t have beaten Trump. While the two Cuban Americans were busy going after each other, by the way, Trump walked off with the Hispanic vote.
Rubio is wise to fear Trump, but not to be cowed by him. He watched as Jeb Bush, at fighting weight and maintaining a schedule that would send Trump to one of his spas for a cure, couldn’t escape the label of being low energy. The phrase was simple, memorable and carried with it intimations of a spent dynasty in its twilight. No Paleo diet, removing the granny glasses or jumping around the stage like a jackrabbit could compensate.
To avoid being steamrolled, Rubio is going to have to man-up both for optics and reality. Time is running out to actually win something, and he risks looking wimpy, which the schoolboy Rubio can’t afford.
Since Bush dropped out, Rubio’s had the wind, money and endorsements at his back, but not the steel in his spine. While he was dinging Cruz, Trump was getting stronger. His 34 percent win in South Carolina was followed by a 46 percent sweep in Nevada. And that was one of Rubio’s best hopes: There’s no state on Super Tuesday where he has such a clear shot.
Rubio’s detente with Trump is based on three false premises. First, that Rubio will get all, or most, of Cruz’s votes should the latter go down. A vote for Cruz is not a vote against Trump. Trump has shown strength among evangelicals, conservatives, Hispanics (and his new fave, “the poorly educated”) and he’s just as likely to get Cruz’s voters as Rubio.
Second, Trump has lured Rubio into thinking that he’s not going to attack him if he isn’t attacked first. But on Wednesday, Trump was asked how long the live-and-let-live phase would last, and he served notice that the gloves could be coming off. “So far he’s been very nice, and I think I’ve been very nice to him,” Trump said on Today Wednesday. But when it comes to not nice, “We haven’t been in that mode yet, but probably it’ll happen.”
Third, Cruz isn’t going to buckle, even if he loses his home state of Texas, because he’s on a well-funded crusade to purify the party for true conservatives and save his “little girls” from the apocalypse. He is also the most ambitious person in the Senate, and that’s saying something.
To Cruz, coming in a few points behind Rubio means two people are losing to Trump for now. He’s the one showing up Trump as unfit to lead and he’ll be the one to reap the reward. He’s also beaten Trump — in Iowa — something Rubio can’t say.
For now, there’s not a state on Super Tuesday where Rubio is leading. Trump fills stadiums in Atlanta and Dallas; Rubio wows folks in the Minneapolis suburbs (where he went Wednesday). Before the Iowa caucuses, Rubio spent so much time in Ankeny, a Des Moines bedroom community, he could have been running for mayor. Rubio won that county, but Cruz won Iowa.
On Tuesday night, Rubio went to bed rather than vamp for the cameras about how wonderful it was to come in second. It’s getting old. Everyone knows that beating Cruz is not winning. He wants to be well-rested for the night he beats Trump — if that night ever comes.