18 February 2016

Racing Rubio rising. Trump tumbling?


During the New Hampshire debate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took what at the time seemed like a fatal punch at Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Several times, Christie fired at Rubio, claiming the young Hispanic Senator was robotic, delivering the same canned answer no matter the question. After Rubio finished fifth in the New Hampshire primary, obituaries for his campaign were written. It appeared to have been a death knell.

The campaign has moved on to South Carolina, Christie is out and during last night’s CNN town hall Rubio shed the image of a robot only capable of canned answers. Instead, he was dazzling. Meanwhile, the frontrunner may just be imploding.

In an odd twist indeed, the biggest criticism of Rubio’s appearance was not that he was talking too robotically, but that he was delivering his impassioned messages on education, debt and the importance of family too quickly. Senator Ted Cruz’s communications director, Rick Tyler, actually accused Rubio of sounding like he was “guilty of something” by speaking too fast. Got that? Apparently by saying too many words (Tyler claims to have clocked it at 230 words per minute) Rubio was hiding something. More often, a candidate looking to hide something would put as little as possible on the record.

This strange and contrived attack on Rubio’s performance speaks volumes. The only thing the opposing campaign’s communications shop could insult was not what Rubio was saying, but how he was saying it.

Later this week South Carolinians cast their votes for the GOP nominee, the second state to do so (Iowa is technically a caucus, not an election). And Trump has consistently polled far better in the state than his Republican competitors.

In the last few days, the narrative has changed. Trump’s support, in internal polls and in a recently released by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, is dropping and fast. For the first time, another candidate has overtaken Trump in a South Carolina poll, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz polling at 28 percent, to Trump’s 26. Rubio is in third place with 17.

Part of this implosion is due to the earlier debate held in the state, when Donald Trump, not once but twice, blamed the attacks of September 11th on President George W. Bush. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans is high, some polls even place him at the 80 percent mark. When Bush appeared at a rally in South Carolina in support of his brother Jeb, also running for the GOP nomination (though not doing nearly as well as one might have assumed) the rally had record turnout and enthusiasm. George W. Bush is popular, especially among southern Republicans, and Trump made one of the most insulting and false accusations he could have possibly dreamed of against the former president.

During that same Saturday night debate, Rubio’s defense of Bush was the most eloquent and forceful. One would imagine that role would have been filled by Jeb Bush; that of defending his brother. But it was Rubio, which explains why the younger Bush brother is polling so far below expectation, and why Rubio’s numbers have seen the bounce they have in the last week.

Since that debate, Rubio’s support among South Carolina Republicans has surged. Rubio also garnered the coveted endorsement of beloved South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. As Rubio pointed out last night, an American of Cuban descent (Rubio), had just toured the state with the female governor, who is of Indian descent, and with one of the state’s two Senators, the first African American Senator in the state’s history, Tim Scott. That, he said, is the Republican Party in 2016. And that message is resonating.

If the new polls out of South Carolina ring true, Trump may finally be witnessing the implosion of his campaign. If he does, the GOP will choose between two talented and formidable young Hispanic men for the nomination. Last night Rubio reminded Americans why he’s one of the last men standing and why he shouldn’t be counted out of the race yet.

Bethany Mandel writes on politics and culture.