Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may have to get through Donald Trump to win the GOP nomination, but he has no intention of attacking him on the way there.
Rubio’s team watched as their now-fallen rivals reoriented their entire campaign messages around defeating Trump, only to fail. With a winnowing field and critical deadlines, Rubio is betting it all that following them down the Trump rabbit-hole won’t work. Instead, Rubio is looking to raise the stakes of the election to voter, while casting himself in the glow of the GOP’s saint, Ronald Reagan.
Standing before an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds in hotel ballroom in Texas, Rubio interrupted his rote stump speech to deliver a history lesson about the former GOP president.
“Reagan didn’t just win an election, Reagan defined a generation,” he said, recounting the fight against Communism. “He was realistic, but he was optimistic.” The message was joined by two sharp swings at the GOP poll leader—a rarity from Rubio on the trail, who has resorted to humor rather than attacks on Trump—suggesting he was weak in his support of Israel and once backed Obamacare.
The new riff, which aides claimed the candidate wrote himself Wednesday, reflects an effort by Rubio to re-frame the 2016 campaign as a choice between himself and Trump. The president, Rubio said, is always in proximity to the nuclear football, and has the power to deploy troops to harms way. The commander in chief also has to inspire the nation, he added. The contrast points were designed to play into doubts about Trump’s temperament, and represent a major risk in a year in which bombast has outmaneuvered subtlety.
On Thursday, the Rubio campaign released a new ad aimed at Super Tuesday states featuring his South Carolina primary-night speech, when flanked by a diverse group of endorsers he said, “now the children of the Reagan revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership.”
It’s the sort of poetry that has defined Rubio’s campaign. In an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly Wednesday, Rubio embraced the notion of being an underdog. “I’ve been an underdog my entire life,” he said mentioning his ethnicity and financial background with his surprising political career. “But I relish that. This is a country of underdogs.”
Rubio aides say they expect to see more interaction between Trump and Rubio as the field consolidates, but that going scorched-earth against Trump would only undercut their optimistic message to voters. In Thursday’s debate and in debates to come they will no doubt trade barbs, they said. But Rubio’s criticism of Trump will mirror his efforts in the most recent debate, when he out-defended Jeb Bush in a defense of his brother, George W. Bush, from Trump’s attacks. The message isn’t designed to win over Trump voters, who have demonstrated remarkable loyalty.
“I know you’re angry at the political class–and you should be,” Rubio said in Houston, decrying the “most selfish generation of leaders this country has ever had, in both parties.” But then he asked voters, “But are we going to allow it to define us?”
So far, Republican primary voters are answering in the affirmative.
“No one is organizing a campaign with different message hits each day. No one has brought in victims of his bankruptcies, gone to Atlantic City and held press conferences, attacked him on cultural stuff,” says Stuart Stevens, the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “It’s mind-boggling.”
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