This is the stretch of the political season when presidential nominees swoop into key states to appear at rallies with candidates running for other offices.
The big question facing top Republicans on the ballot is: Do I really want to be seen in public with Donald Trump?
It’s an especially queasy decision for two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona. Both have been scorned and humiliated by Trump, yet they continue to say they support him.
Here’s the dilemma: Rubio and McCain hate Trump’s guts, but they think they need his angry-white-voter base to get re-elected. The result is a self-debasing charade of “distancing” themselves from the racist real-estate developer without repudiating him.
“Little Marco,” as Trump christened him during the debates, stands by his assessment of Trump as “a con man,” but he says we should put him in the White House anyway.
That astonishing position reveals more about Rubio’s fitness for office than it does about Trump’s.
Meanwhile, out West, McCain still can’t bring himself to confront the man who said American POWs are called heroes only because they were captured.
The “bone spurs” that spared Trump from military service didn’t keep him off his preferred field of battle, the tennis court. He was courageously working on his backhand while McCain was being tortured in a rat-hole prison camp in North Vietnam.
Now we’re subjected to the sorry spectacle of a true war hero who is so scared of losing a few votes that he allows himself — and other POWs — to be insulted by a tender-footed phony who never saw a day of combat.
Neither McCain nor Rubio attended Trump’s nomination at the GOP convention in Cleveland, though Marco sent a videotaped message just to cover his butt. Lots of big-name Republicans didn’t go, so the absence of two more senators wasn’t such a big deal.
But, with the election only 65 days away, it will be harder for McCain and Rubio to avoid crossing paths with the Big Orange Trumpster during his campaign jaunts through Arizona and Florida.
Strategists in both senators’ camps will huddle and fret. Focus groups will be assembled. Major donors will be consulted.
Oh God, what do we do if Donald calls?
Dodge him, of course, unless his poll numbers improve substantially. Even then, Rubio and McCain must proceed with caution.
Option One is your basic dull photo, a snapshot with Trump backstage somewhere. No hugs from the senators -- just a chilly handshake, a stiff smile and a speedy exit.
Option Two would be a more painful cave-in, actually stepping on the same stage with Trump. If he is within five points of Hillary Clinton in the polls, Rubio or McCain might just grit their teeth and give him half a hug.
Option Three, the most extreme, would be taking the microphone and speaking at a Trump campaign rally, while he stands there beaming. There would be full hugs, handshakes and agonizing fake camaraderie – in other words, the ultimate abandonment of self-respect by Rubio and McCain.
Could such an awkward scenario possibly happen?
It’s easy to picture Marco posing in a con man’s “Make America Great Again” cap, but not McCain. Please.
Because of Trump’s tendency to spontaneously offend large segments of voters, public contact with him remains risky for any politician. Ask Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, who’s being pummeled from all sides for meeting with the man nicknamed El Payaso (the clown).
As Election Day approaches, Trump knows his campaign’s proxy roster needs to expand beyond Rudy Giuliani, who bears a creepy resemblance to Danny DeVito’s Penguin character in “Batman Returns.”
Trump would dearly love to have Rubio at his side in Miami, or McCain in Phoenix. But it can only happen if the senators surrender that last shred of dignity.
Maybe they won’t. Maybe their consciences, or their stomachs, will finally tell them enough’s enough.
When Trump calls, it shouldn’t be hard to say No. He’s used to being snubbed by other Republicans.
Just tell him you’d really love to join him at the big rally, but you’ve got a previous commitment that night.
Like shampooing your cat. Or donating a kidney to a total stranger.
Any old excuse will do.