The golden boy of the Republican Party is going down in flames. In almost astonishing fashion, the rising star of Marco Rubio is glimmering out, leaving the Republican primary wrestling match between Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and, for the moment, John Kasich.
He’s not out yet, but how exactly did we get to the point where Marco Rubio looks set to lose his home state of Florida? Here are a few factors:
Brawling with Trump
Just prior to Super Tuesday, Marco Rubio finally tore into Donald Trump. It didn’t work.
Jeb Bush had been grappling with Trump for months: as the presumptive frontrunner, the outsider Trump set his sights on Bush early on in the process. With the departure of Jeb, the Rubio team believed the time was ripe to set Rubio on Trump.
Rubio criticised Trump’s record as a businessman, highlighted to his privileged background, dubbed him a conman, and hammered him for using foreign workers while the billionaire supposedly champions the American working man. Then came Super Tuesday and Trump scored victories throughout the country while Rubio lagged.
What next? Rubio went even more aggressive. Surely if Trump can get away with ridiculous personal attacks, if Rubio can throw a few punches at Trump over hand-size perhaps his voters will see that he isn’t impervious?
That didn’t work. Trump’s supporters appear to be at a point of loyalty that defies contradiction, and Rubio’s rhetorical fisticuffs did little to blunt his popularity. Instead, it may have driven voters away from Rubio. To see the young, hopeful candidate of the GOP resort to school-yard insults was not becoming.
Tangling with Trump has not worked for anyone. His celebrity and brand of populist rabble-rousing is almost impenetrable, and Rubio may have sacrificed some of his moderate ground in the process of moving to counter Trump’s vitriol.
From the start Rubio was going to struggle with the immigration question. Falling into a more moderate camp on the issue, along with his former Floridian ally Jeb Bush, Rubio’s record in Congress was good ammunition for his rivals.
Ted Cruz, in particular, beat away at Rubio regarding his involvement in the failed 2013 ‘Gang of Eight’ bipartisan bill. Yet again, this would likely have been less damaging had Donald Trump not dragged the entire debate so far to the right on the issue that any moderate positions on immigration and citizenship was like a cancer on a candidate’s record.
Alienating Jeb Bush
Amidst all the mud-slinging of the Republican primary debates, Marco Rubio may have done some real damage to his chances.
In particular, Rubio’s decision to run against fellow Floridian Jeb Bush has dealt him a deathly blow. Rubio’s continued viability rests on him winning Florida on March 15th: if he doesn’t triumph in his ‘winner-take-all’ home state, he will surely drop out of the race in the aftermath. Unfortunately, Donald Trump leads in polls over Rubio.
An endorsement from Jeb Bush might swing things though. Despite a lacklustre performance in the Republican race, Bush remains a broadly popular figure in Florida. The former Governor of Florida recently met with Cruz, Kasich and Rubio, as he mulls his decision on whether he wishes to endorse one of the remaining candidates.
Rubio could have been the natural benefactor of Jeb’s favour, but their clash during the primary debates may have soured the relationship to a point of no return. Losing Florida, and thus his race, may be the price Rubio pays.
Perhaps Marco Rubio’s problem wasn’t Donald Trump, his legislative record, or alienating his former ally. Perhaps the problem was Marco Rubio.
On paper Rubio is an almost perfect post-2012 Republican candidate. Relatively young, hispanic, and optimistic. On paper Rubio is the face of the new Republican Party, able to connect with young people and the battleground demographic of latinos and hispanics.
Except that he isn’t. Rubio enjoys flashes of rhetorical excellence, and can excite his supporters. He can go toe-to-toe with the bullying Trump, and snap back at Ted Cruz. He has a relatively decent understanding of domestic issues, and a knowledge of international affairs.
But he doesn’t look presidential.
Presidential campaigns aren’t just one person against another. They are also processes of personal growth and development for a candidate. Some thrive under the pressure, and mould themselves into a truly national politician: consider Barack Obama in 2008. Yet, despite one of the toughest primary fields in recent memory, Rubio has not undergone the same transformation.
It is possible to imagine him behind the lecture, sat at the Resolute Desk, addressing soldiers as Commander in Chief? He doesn’t have either the stature nor the gravitas for that role, and I suspect this is an underlying reason he has failed to crack through with conservatives across America.