By Jose Serrano – – – – –
Between yoga jokes and website plugs, when a campaign trail-weary voice allowed him to, Marco Rubio fought for relevance, exploiting Donald Trump during Thursday’s Republican debate.
The Florida senator shed his policy-focused campaign to continue far-reaching personal attacks on Trump that began during last week’s 10th GOP debate of the election cycle. As Fox News moderator Bret Baier pointed out, Rubio shifted strategies because his tactics until now didn’t fit his personality or campaign message.
Last week in Texas and on Thursday night in Detroit, Rubio plead with Republican voters to question Trump’s candidacy. He urged Republicans to look at Trump’s foreign policy strategy, his choice to hire undocumented workers over Americans and the pending litigation over Trump University, a now-defunct institution that brought about a class action lawsuit.
“This campaign for the last year, Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said. “He has done so to people that are sitting on the stage today. He has done so about people that are disabled. He has done it about every candidate in this race.”
Rubio continued, “So if there is anyone who has ever deserved to be attacked that way, it has been Donald Trump, for the way he has treated people.”
The success of Rubio’s strategy, one fit for a withering campaign, won’t be clear until Floridians cast their ballots during the March 15 primary.
Rubio is the election season’s perennial third-place candidate.
His campaign found encouragement in the Iowa caucus and again following the South Carolina primary. Rubio argued that his Bible Belt consolation prize signaled future victories once the race got “down to two, three, or four people,” but in the five-man contest on Super Tuesday — with Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Ben Carson in the running — Rubio again fell short.
Of 11 states, only Minnesota went in Rubio’s direction. He earned delegates in six states and fell 1 percentage point short of earning more in two other states — to earn delegates at all a candidate must meet a 20 percent threshold.
Nothing short of stealing five or six states from Trump could have cut into the real estate magnate’s insurmountable lead. Rubio carries 110 delegates into Super Saturday. Trump has 319 delegates, 918 short of the necessary number to win the GOP’s automatic nomination.
The Rubio campaign didn’t have high hopes going into the March 1 primaries and caucuses. Rubio expected a poor showing. The silver lining, as Rubio put it, was that Trump didn’t earn a unanimous victory.
“The bottom line from last night is it was supposed to be Ted Cruz’s night. It was not,” Rubio told Fox News on Wednesday morning. “Donald Trump, 65 percent of people who voted voted against him. That is the problem he has. He can never bring this party together. There will never be a time when our supporters will ask us to make way for Donald Trump.”
Rubio’s sole election night victory never looked more like defeat.
The Florida Vote
Beginning March 15, all Republican primaries are winner-take-all format. The candidate with the highest number of votes in Florida wins 99 delegates.
The homegrown senator should have the advantage, if only for his Cuban roots and the affinity he shares with the people of Miami. The Miami Herald has already given Rubio an endorsement, emphasizing that Republicans need to nominate a unifying candidate who can draw independent and left-leaning voters. New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez plans onstumping with him on upcoming trips to Florida and Kansas.
“Marco Rubio is a compelling leader who can unite the country around conservative principles that will improve the lives of all Americans,” Martinez said in a statement. “The stakes for our great country are too high – and the differences between the candidates too great – for me to remain neutral in this race. I wholeheartedly trust Marco to keep us safe and ensure a better tomorrow.”
A Quinnipiac poll conducted between Feb. 21 and 24 found Trump to be an unstoppable force in Florida, carrying double-digits leads among conservatives who are non-college graduates, those under age 64, Evangelicals, men, women and members of the Tea Party.
Respondents, however, believe Rubio is the more electable candidate, saying he has the best chance of winning by a 54 to 28 margin.
“If Sen. Rubio can’t win in his own home state, it is difficult to see how he can win elsewhere,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. “Only registered Republicans may vote here, which raises the question of whether the flood of new voters Donald Trump seemed to bring to earlier contests will be able to participate in Florida.”
Florida is the primary season’s most coveted prize. There, the window for Rubio to challenge Trump’s nomination either closes or remains cracked open.
Anything less than a victory may end Rubio’s political career in the Sunshine State.