Rubio Pivots to Take Aim at Cruz

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

With 55 days remaining until the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus begins to help sort out front-runners from also-rans, Senator Marco Rubio has signaled a significant shift in his campaign approach and begun trading paint with the now-surging Senator Ted Cruz.

A Sunday, December 6, New York Times piece unpacks the new Rubio strategy, designed to blunt surging Cruz momentum both in Iowa and in other early states. It is clear that Cruz’s well-developed campaign infrastructure and abundant face time in the state has the Rubio campaign concerned:

…In interviews, speeches and in stealthier ways, Mr. Rubio has abruptly changed course, zeroing in on Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in an urgent effort to halt his momentum with conservative voters in this state and beyond.

With help from an allied group that is airing television ads in Iowa, Mr. Rubio is seeking to raise doubts on the right about Mr. Cruz’s toughness on national security — a potentially fatal vulnerability, should Mr. Rubio succeed, amid heightened concerns about terrorism. More quietly, he is trying to muddy the perception that Mr. Cruz is a hard-liner on immigration, asserting that Mr. Cruz supports “legalizing people that are in this country illegally.”

Mr. Rubio has ample reason to act. Polls show that Mr. Cruz is consolidating support among conservatives in Iowa, which begins the nominating process. A victory here could allow him to gather strength quickly on the right, gain speed in South Carolina on Feb. 20 and potentially become a steamroller by the Super Tuesday voting in many Southern states on March 1. And with right-of-center Republicans like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John R. Kasich effectively making a last stand in New Hampshire, the Republican establishment could be delayed in coalescing around a Rubio candidacy — making stopping Mr. Cruz, or at least slowing him, all the more urgent.

The Washington Post has also chronicled Cruz’s newfound footing in reporting on a Dec. 2 Quinnipiac University national poll:

…in both polling and media attention. But in a new Quinnipiac University national poll on the 2016 field, it’s Ted Cruz who looks like the candidate you may want to bet on.

Here’s why.

In the ballot test, Cruz has 16 percent support — and is in a statistical tie for second place with Ben Carson and Marco Rubio. Carson is very much headed in the wrong direction; he was at 23 percent in a Q poll conducted a month ago and is down seven points. Rubio is moving in the right direction (up three points from last month, to 17 percent), as is Cruz (up three points). And, Cruz’s trend line is quite clear and quite good. He was at 5 percent in a Q poll in late July, 7 percent in a September poll and 16 now. Trend lines matter more than anything else in national primary polling, and no one this side of Rubio has a better trend line than Cruz.

Dig deeper into the findings and things look even better for the senator from Texas. Although Cruz is at 16 percent among all Republicans, he runs significantly stronger among three subgroups: “very” conservative voters, tea party supporters and white born-again/evangelical voters. Those subgroups are also the three most important and powerful when it comes to deciding the GOP nominee in 2016.

As Rubio shifts focus to Cruz, it points to several issues, not the least of which is how far and fast Dr. Ben Carson has fallen from favor among Iowa voters. A recent Monmouth University Poll has him down 19 points while Cruz’s support has jumped by 14 points, twice that of Rubio. A newly released CNN poll shows a similar but not as precipitous drop for Dr. Carson (7 points down since late October). But the trend lines are clear: as Carson fades, Cruz is swallowing his support with Rubio picking up the leftovers. The second is a corollary strategy decision by both Rubio and Cruz camps that Donald Trump is not the real obstacle to the nomination.

Rubio’s main line of attack is on national security, not an unwise political move amid increasing incidence of radical Islamic terrorism both abroad and now within the homeland:

…Mr. Rubio has taken to tying Mr. Cruz to liberal lightning rods like Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that Mr. Cruz worked with them “to harm our intelligence programs.”

“There are Republicans, including Senator Cruz, that have voted to weaken those programs,” Mr. Rubio said Nov. 30 on Fox News, about Mr. Cruz’s vote to end the National Security Agency’s bulk data-collection program. Mr. Rubio was even harsher in an interview with the radio show host Hugh Hewitt, saying that Mr. Cruz “voted for a budget that basically gutted our foreign aid program, particularly our defense of the Israelis.”

A question remains as to whether the criticisms and inferences Sen. Rubio draws will stick with voters who generally regard Sen. Cruz as strong on national security and terrorism. Another factor is the perception that Rubio is simply attacking Cruz as a deflection strategy to Rubio’s alliance with the now-infamous “Gang of Eight” and their failed comprehensive immigration reform that was largely dismissed by party conservatives as “amnesty,” a decidedly toxic pejorative among the voting base of the GOP.

For his part, Senator Cruz is not standing idly by and turning the other cheek. He has aggressively relied on his own Chuck Schumer analogy. The NYT article points out:

Mr. Cruz has struck back, reminding conservatives of Mr. Rubio’s work with Mr. Schumer on immigration. And he can barely restrain his glee about how the campaign is shaping up, less than two months until Iowa votes.

A November 12 Business Insider article points to the growing contention between the two emerging candidates:

While being careful to avoid criticizing Rubio directly by name during an interview with Laura Ingraham on Thursday, Cruz knocked the Florida senator and several other Republicans for their support of the 2013 immigration-reform package that stalled in Congress.

“Talk is cheap,” Cruz said.

The Texas senator pointed out that unlike Rubio, who now says that border-security measures need to be implemented before a pathway to legal status can be established for immigrants living in the country unlawfully, Cruz believed in securing the border first all along.

“The argument that we need to secure the border first is an argument that I was making over, and over, and over again,” Cruz said. When asked whether Rubio supported Cruz’s border-security amendments, Cruz said Rubio “opposed every single one of them.”

“As a voter, when politicians are saying the exact opposite of what they have done in office, I treat that with a healthy degree of skepticism,” he added.

And in a more recent Bloomberg Politics interview, Cruz used the same referential paint brush, changing color from Schumer to Clinton, to paint Rubio as a military adventurist:

Ted Cruz on Monday offered his strongest denunciation so far of Marco Rubio’s foreign policy views, assailing his Republican presidential rival as a proponent of “military adventurism” that he said has benefited Islamic militant groups. He even tied the Floridian to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“Senator Rubio emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in toppling [Muammar] Qaddafi in Libya. I think that made no sense,” Cruz told Bloomberg Politics in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview during a campaign swing through Iowa. He argued that the 2011 bombings that toppled the Libyan leader didn’t help the fight against terrorists. “Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet … he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism.”

“The terrorist attack that occurred in Benghazi was a direct result of that massive foreign policy blunder,” Cruz said…

Just as Rubio has tried to tarnish the Cruz brand on national security, it remains to be seen if Rubio’s nascent hawkish brand will take a hit by Cruz’s comparison of his positions to the tragedy of Benghazi.

But make no mistake, Rubio’s angle of attack indicates the seriousness with which his campaign, his PACs, and likely Iowa voters regard a Cruz candidacy. Influential Iowa conservatives Rep. Steve King and former Iowa State Central Committee member Loras Schulte have signaled their support for Sen. Cruz, as has the Conservative Review’s Steve Deace. Cruz and Rubio both have a handful of Iowa State Legislators in their respective camps.

But still waiting in the wings is Bob Vander Plaats of the Iowa FAMiLY Leader. His endorsement is one of the most sought after in Iowa, and should it fall to Ted Cruz, the Iowa Caucus is likely to come down to measuring the margin between Trump and Cruz than that between Cruz and Rubio. But 55 days is a lifetime in political campaigns and much can change before then. One thing is sure, however: the Cruz v. Rubio battle, which many believe is inevitable, has been engaged and will only intensify.

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.