Marco Rubio outmaneuvered the Republican establishment in 2009 and 2010 and came from way behind to win a U.S. Senate seat from Florida. He defeated the then popular sitting Republican governor Charlie Crist (yes, the same Charlie Crist who has since been an independent and, for the moment, is a Democrat). As that race began, Crist enjoyed wide leads in the polls over Rubio, who was barely known outside of his Florida state house district. But Rubio wore Crist first down and then out by saying what Florida voters wanted to hear and by convincing them Crist was not what he was claiming to be.
Quite an accomplishment, that. But it’s going to be a lot more difficult to pull off this kind of an upset this year against Donald Trump, a candidate who is at once much better and much worse than the chimerical Crist. Rubio is making a strong conservative case, and outlining how Trump, like Crist, is not what he’s claiming to be. But there’s little evidence that Marco’s message is getting traction. Trump’s supporters are some of the most dug-in in American political history, and seemingly immune to any criticism of their candidate, even when it’s spot on. Perhaps especially when it’s spot on.
Florida’s Republican presidential primary is March 15. Most who follow elections agree that it’s the bottom of the ninth for Rubio and he’s many runs behind. If he doesn’t pull off an upset and win his home state, preferably by a comfortable margin, it will be time, whether he accepts the idea or not, for him to pack it in for this cycle. Rubio’s all-Florida, all-the-time event schedule for the next week and change reflects this urgency. Between now and March 16 it will be almost impossible for Floridians to turn on their TVs or answer their phones without tripping over Rubio or someone with his campaign making a pitch. (HBP — hit by pitch — if you’re keeping score.) Anti-Trump PACs are all over the airwaves. Sunshine State mailboxes groan with pro-Rubio and anti-Trump material.
Rubio returned to Florida Saturday from the CPAC conference in Maryland where he and his remarks were warmly received but where he was beaten by Ted Cruz in that group’s straw poll. He set the tone for his week at a rally in Jacksonville where he pounded Trump for not being a conservative and for not knowing what a man who would be president should know. He compared Trump to the flip-flopping and principle-free Crist that he defeated in 2010.
“I was arguing (then) that the person running as a Republican was not a Republican, that the person masquerading as a conservative was not a conservative,” he told the crowd in the most conservative big city in Florida. “It’s funny how history repeats itself.”
He also hit Trump on the gaping holes in Trump’s understanding of the world and defense issues by saying, “The commander in chief cannot be a man who thinks the nuclear triad is a rock band.”
Good lines, but will they change any minds in a Rubio direction? Don’t put the mortgage money on it. You’d do better at one of Trump’s casinos, where the only even-money odds are at the ATM machine in the lobby. Recent polls and voting results show that in the current badly fractured Republican Party — sharply divided between the Trumps and the un-Trumps — the current best hope of the un-Trumps is Ted Cruz, not Marco Rubio. Rubio is running out of time to demonstrate this is not so.
In 2010 Rubio was the outsider, the anti-establishment candidate. In news coverage of that race it was impossible to read a sentence with the words Marco Rubio in it that did not also include the words tea party, though Rubio’s appeal was clearly much wider. He beat Crist by 20 points. Early on in the race, all the establishment support and money went to Crist. Texas Senator John Cornyn, then chairman of the very establishment National Republican Senatorial Committee, threw his group’s support to Crist almost before Crist finished announcing that he was running for the open U.S. Senate seat instead of for re-election as Florida’s governor.
Thanks to the wondrous ways of American politics, where labels and definitions can be moving targets, tea party Marco has since morphed into the establishment candidate. The always plugged-in Trump, pretty chimerical himself (and bombastic into the bargain), is the outsider who’s going to shake up the establishment that has helped him stay rich and which he has financed to keep in his pocket for decades. Go figure.
Sorry. Gotta go. Phone’s ringing. Wonder who it could be.
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