Whether top-tier contender or desperate also-ran, every candidate on the GOP debate stage Saturday in Manchester, New Hampshire, will arrive armed to the teeth to take down Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
For fellow Establishment candidates Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the rise of Rubio is synonymous with their downfall. Each of the three have talked of a “governors” primary, predicated on the assumption that voters may turn to a more moderate candidate with executive experience after assessing the field.
That theory will fail — and the 2016 hopes will die for all three — if Rubio leaves New Hampshire flush with momentum and a unified Establishment behind him. Other than Kasich, who has a snobbish aversion to hard-nosed politics, expect Bush and Christie to go after Rubio with pitchforks.
Christie in particular has ramped up his attacks on Rubio to blistering levels in recent days, calling him the “boy in the bubble,” and challenging him to produce evidence of a single legislative accomplishment in Congress. Bush has been less vocal on the trail, having typically awkward trouble spitting out his usual talking points anyway, but his campaign and affiliated super PAC have hammered Rubio with constant barrages of attacks ads.
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Iowa winner Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has more staying power than Rubio’s Establishment rivals, but has just as much to lose from a strong Rubio debate night and a resulting surge out of the Granite State. Bolstered by the fawning adoration of the media, Rubio has enjoyed near-blanket positive coverage post Iowa. The press has exaggerated Rubio’s outperformance of polls in Iowa and deprived Cruz of any real momentum from his upset win in the Hawkeye State.
Cruz has also been stalled by attacks primarily for the offense of running the best campaign. Opponents and political adversaries have slammed Cruz for so-called vote-shaming mail pieces sent by his campaign before the Iowa caucuses.
“Your individual voting history as well as your neighbor’s are public record,” one Cruz mailer read. “Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. Caucus on Monday to improve your score and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well.”
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate called the mailer “misleading,” and “not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa caucuses.” But the secretary of state failed to denounce a nearly identical mail piece deployed by Rubio’s campaign.
“<first name> 7 of your neighbors are voting in the Iowa Caucus Monday,” the Rubio mailer read, before listing the voting history of the individual recipient in the form of a report card. “Improve your score by caucusing on Monday, February 1.”
The media blew up the outrage over the Cruz mailers without noting the markedly similar Rubio piece, or that the vote-shaming tactic has been deployed by sophisticated, high-level campaigns in both parties since 2008.
A 2008 report from the Wall Street Journal noted: “Democrats in New York state,” alone had “sent out more than 800,000 ‘voter shaming’ letters, grading residents on how often they turned out.” The report noted the Democrat pieces also included a warning to voters that read, “If you do not vote this year, we will be interested in hearing why not.”
The Cruz camp has also been besieged by cries of injustice from retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s campaign, amplified and repeated by Donald Trump, over a Cruz email blast the night of the Iowa caucuses implying Carson may have been headed to the exit.
To foretell the doom of opponents is a common arrow in a campaign’s quiver. Yet the fact the Cruz campaign blasted out a CNN report that Carson was leaving Iowa abruptly has been called “fraud” by Trump, and a “dirty trick” by Carson.
Just as he was besieged in January by claims of birtherism and Wall Street connections, Cruz is once again under attack and will need to capitalize on the Rubio-focus in the debate by turning in a stellar performance and helping the others in their effort to bring down Rubio.
Before he can again turn his sights on Trump, Cruz needs to halt Rubio’s upward trajectory. The most recent poll in New Hampshire shows Rubio and Cruz separated by 1 percentage point, essentially tied for second place. But Rubio had all the upward movement in the Granite State survey.
The first national poll taken solely after Iowa by PPP puts Rubio and Cruz in a tie at 21 percent. Trump, once dominant in national polls, leads the duo by just 4 points.
The remaining candidates in the Republican race don’t agree on hardly anything, but on Saturday night, they will work as a team to take down Rubio.