Christie And Bush Take Aim At Marco Rubio
Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have spent the holiday week taking aim at Marco Rubio.
While campaigning has been somewhat muted this week thanks to the fact that we’re between holidays and weather in the Midwest and elsewhere has impacted travel, several campaigns have been making the rounds, and the target among at least the ‘establishment’ wing of the GOP this week seems to be Florida Senator Marco Rubio:
Campaigning Tuesday in Iowa, Chris Christie didn’t want to answer Donald Trump’s scathing criticism Monday of his governing record. But he was eager to blast Marco Rubio for failing to show up and vote in the Senate.
“Dude, show up to work and vote no; and if you don’t want to, then quit,” Christie told voters during a town hall meeting in Muscatine, Iowa.
It’s the exact same line of attack against the Florida senator that Jeb Bush’s super PAC is now featuring in a new $1 million New Hampshire TV ad buy alleging that Rubio skipped a high-level intelligence briefing following the ISIL terror attacks in Paris in order to raise money for his campaign.
“Over the last three years, Rubio has missed important national security hearings and missed more total votes than any other senator. Politics first, that’s the Rubio way,” the narrator in the Right to Rise ad says.
The attacks are politically fraught for both establishment challengers: Christie has hardly shown up in Trenton to do his own job since committing to campaign almost full-time in New Hampshire; and Bush’s own attempt to prosecute this case against his former mentee in a late October debate backfired so spectacularly it prompted calls for him to drop out.
But with the starting gun of the primary fight little more than a month away, both contenders appear to be eyeing Rubio as their biggest obstacle in consolidating support from mainstream Republicans — and they’re zeroing in on what they see as the senator’s biggest weak spot just as he’s trying to close the sale.
“What you’re seeing is the clearest evidence of how wide open the center-right lane of the caucus electorate is in Iowa,” said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa GOP chairman who is uncommitted. “Those are all candidates that would love to get some momentum that will help them make their case in New Hampshire.”
“Both Bush and Christie see Rubio as the front-runner in that lane, and they’re trying to take him down so they have a better shot at it,” said Douglas Gross, who served as Mitt Romney’s 2012 Iowa finance chairman but, like a number of establishment conservatives, remains uncommitted.
The substance of the attack on Rubio not showing up to vote may matter less to establishment Republicans in Iowa, who are still trying to determine whether the young first-term senator is truly the GOP’s best general-election candidate. “I keep hearing that Rubio is people’s favorite among [choices Rubio, Bush and Christie] not because they love his voting record but because they think he’s the party’s best shot to beat Hillary Clinton,” Gross said. “So the other candidates really have to attack that electability narrative if they’re going to bring him down.”
But the absenteeism takedown has a chance of resonating in New Hampshire, where it runs parallel to recent stories about the Florida senator’s relatively light campaign schedule being a particular affront to an electorate that relishes its first-in-the-nation responsibility and demands accessibility from candidates.
“New Hampshire voters demand respect for their process and their prerogatives,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “The theme of Rubio’s absence from the state is likely to continue to be the focus of both Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.”
New Hampshire, after all, looks to be a decisive battle that will cull the establishment side of the primary down to one or two serious contenders. Christie is within striking distance of Rubio in an average of New Hampshire polls, trailing him just 11.5 percent to Rubio’s 12.8 percent. Bush, meanwhile, has an average of 7.8 percent in the state, well above his national average of 4.4 percent. With no clear consensus front-runner among the four candidates seeking a ticket out of the state (Ohio Gov. John Kasich being the fourth), the race may break in the eight days between the Iowa caucuses and the primary on Feb. 9.
“The four candidates that fit in that establishment lane understand that only one, maximum two of them, are coming out of New Hampshire,” Schmidt said. “The degree to which Christie and Jeb can collapse any chance of Rubio winning New Hampshire, they exit with a comeback narrative and it pushes to the outer limits the place where Rubio has a chance to get his first victory.”
In reality, it strikes me that the reality coming out of New Hampshire may well be that only one establishment candidate ends up coming out of the Granite State as a truly viable candidate, and that we will end up seeing significantly more winnowing of the field in the first two weeks of February than many may be anticipating. The main reason for this is that, immediately after the early primaries in February, the race heads immediately towards a Super Tuesday showdown across the south that is already being dubbed the “SEC Primary” due to the fact that it will be comprised largely of states that have football teams that are part of the SEC conference. In order to compete across that broad a region, a candidate is going to need to have access to a large campaign war chest and a well-organized campaign, and that’s going to take money. A candidate that doesn’t finish in the top three or four in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina is unlikely to get the kind of donor support they’ll need in February to mount a serious campaign in March. Not all of these candidates will drop out right away, of course, since several of them will think they have some kind of point to make, but for all of the talk about how the 2016 race had become so unpredictable because of the presence of Donald Trump in the race, it seems clear that, once the voting starts, the race is likely to take on a more familiar look.
At the moment, the top four candidates in Iowa and South Carolina are Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. In New Hampshire, though, that top four is made up of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Chris Christie. In reality, Ben Carson is likely a falling star who won’t be staying in the top four anywhere before very long, so the battle at this point is for the fourth spot in the early primaries and, beyond that, a way to move into third as the “establishment” alternative to Trump and Cruz. To a large degree, this is why you see candidates like Christie, Bush, and, to some extent, Ohio Governor John Kasich, going after Marco Rubio. As things stand right now, Rubio is the candidate that stands between each of them and the chance to be part of what is likely to be the top of the field after the first two or three primaries. Given that, it’s only natural that these candidates would go after Rubio in the manner that they are. Whether it will work is another question.