Help me out, here, guys, will you? (Reuters/Mike Stone)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

At last night’s debate, Marco Rubio finally unloaded the oppo file on Donald Trump after anxiety-stricken GOP-aligned elite opinion-makers tearfully pleaded with him to finally step up and take on the Trump juggernaut before it’s too late. There’s no question that Rubio had a good showing — he and Ted Cruz did a decent job of shining a harsher light than usual on Trump’s policy shallowness, his ideological opportunism, and his murky business dealings.

The question, of course, is whether it’s too late. Ed Kilgore captures the larger meaning of what happened very well:

That this unholy mess of a debate excited Republican elites is the best sign yet of how desperate they’ve become for anything that might take down Trump. Maybe he will underperform on March 1 and things will turn around – but we shouldn’t believe it until we see it.

Here’s one thing that indicates Rubio isn’t too confident in that regard. This morning he went on CBS News and blamed the media for failing to do its part to stop Trump’s march to the nomination — suggesting that the media is deliberately pumping up Trump in order to help Democrats win the general election. Here’s his full quote:

“The media’s pumping him up as some sort of unstoppable force. Donald Trump has portrayed himself now consistently as fighting for the working people. And he has a record of sticking it to working people for 35 years. If any other candidate in this race had his record, there would be nonstop reporting on it. Unfortunately he’s being pumped up because many in the media with a bias know that he’ll be easy to beat in a general election.

“So we’re gonna put a stop to it now. There’s no way we’re going to allow a con artist to take over the conservative movement.”

There’s little question that the press has lavished far too much attention on Trump, and that this might have helped him get to where he is today. But the notion that Rubio would accuse the media of deliberately inflating his opponent’s chances in order to prevent the more viable GOP general election candidate (himself, naturally) from winning the nomination, after Rubio himself has arguably enjoyed more media hyping of his political chances than anyone else in the race, is remarkable.

What makes this more ludicrous, though, is that if anything, Rubio and Cruz themselves bear a fair amount of blame for the failure to stop Trump. As has been widely documented, both refrained from seriously going after Trump for months, apparently calculating either that engaging Trump was too risky or that it would compromise any efforts to scoop up Trump’s supporters after he faded. The key point here is that both seemed to operate from the assumption that Trump’s collapse was inevitable, and that it was in each of their own political interests not to take him on directly. Yet now that this has proven to be a disastrously wrong reading of Trump’s staying power — something Rubio is implicitly admitting to by adopting a belatedly aggressive strategy — Rubio is blaming the media for failing to block him.

Making this more absurd still, both Rubio and Cruz had explicitly deflected the pressure on them to shelve their Trump avoidance strategy and get serious about engaging Trump by…blaming the media. The other day, after Trump won big in Nevada and the pressure on Rubio to get tougher on him intensified, Rubio dismissed the chatter as nothing more than a “craving in the media for people to attack each other.” Now that Rubio has decided that a Trump win is a genuine possibility, probably due in part to his own reluctance to go after him earlier, he’s trying to blame this failing on the media while simultaneously calling in the media cavalry to help with the rescue operation.

********************************************************************

* TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE FROM RUBIO AND CRUZ? ABC’s Rick Klein makes a good point about last night’s Rubio-and-Cruz tag-teaming of Trump:

The attacks might have been more effective spaced out a bit – and if they had flown with similar ferocity starting last summer, before Republican voters started buying what Trump was selling….At the same time, though, Trump the front-runner turned toward the general election. He praised Planned Parenthood for helping “millions and millions of people,” cast himself as the best candidate to take on Hillary Clinton, and touted his ability to change the nature of the GOP.

Exactly — what took them so long? And for all the excitement about Rubio’s attacks on Trump, the Donald already seemed to be turning towards the general election.

 * RUBIO BETS ON THE ‘DELEGATE FAIRY’: Byron York reports that Republicans hoping to block Trump are placing their faith in the March 15th winner-take-all states. But his is akin to hoping the “delegate fairy” bails him out:

The practical problem is, how does a campaign go from losing everything before March 14 to suddenly winning after March 15? Delegate apportionment doesn’t matter unless that fundamental change occurs….whatever the fallout from the debate, the fact is, something big has to change for Rubio in just a few days.

Watch for the forthcoming polls of Florida that are taken after the debate. If they show Trump still winning, it will deflate the delegate-fairy theory in a big way.

 * GOP INSIDERS THINK TRUMP WILL BE NOMINEE: Politico talks to GOP insiders in a number of early voting states and finds many think Trump will win. Note this:

Majorities of insiders in three of the four upcoming March states – Florida, North Carolina and Virginia – said Trump would win those primaries if they were held today. Only in Ohio did another candidate – Kasich, the sitting governor – emerge on top on this question.

In other words, insiders think Trump will beat Rubio in some of the March 15th states (North Carolina and Florida, Rubio’s home), as well, casting more doubt on the “delegate fairy” strategy.

* HILLARY WAY AHEAD IN FLORIDA: A new Quinnipiac poll finds Hillary Clinton way ahead of Bernie Sanders among likely Florida Dem primary voters, 59-33. And:

Likely Democratic primary voters 18 to 44 years old back Sanders 51-39 percent, while voters 45 to 64 years old back Clinton 64-28 percent and voters over 65 years old back her 73-21 percent.

Once again, young voters are not supporting Clinton, which could have ramifications for the general election. The polling averages put Clinton up here by nearly 30 points.

* TRUMP WAY AHEAD IN FLORIDA? A new poll from the robo-firm Public Policy Polling finds Donald Trump way ahead among Florida Republicans: He has 45 percent; Marco Rubio has 25 percent; and Ted Cruz has 10 percent. In a head to head match-up, Trump beats Rubio by 52-38, suggesting the support of others might not necessarily go to Rubio.

Major caveat: This poll was taken before last night’s debate, so these numbers could change in a big way.  Meanwhile, the polling averages put Trump up 24 points in Rubio’s home state.

* GOP SUPER PAC HITS HILLARY FOR WALL STREET TIES: CNN reports that Future 45, a conservative Super PAC with “ties to a number of top Republican donors,” is up with a new ad on national cable that hits Clinton this way:

“Hillary Clinton gave speeches to the biggest banks on Wall Street after one of the worst financial crises in American history,” a narrator says over video of a Clinton look-alike opening a check from Goldman Sachs. “But Hillary won’t tell us what she said to those banks. They paid her over 1 million dollars and are contributing millions more to elect her.”

The fact that Clinton would stiffen Wall Street oversight, while pretty much any of the GOP candidates would relax it, will not pose the slightest obstacle to Republican efforts to cast her as the Wall Street lackey in the race.

* AND GOP ELITES ARE SHOCKED AT THOSE AWFUL GOP VOTERS: Paul Krugman marvels at how GOP elites are shocked, shocked, that Trump’s xenophobic appeals have more appeal to GOP voters than the usual expressions of supply side orthodoxy do:

They just keep waiting for Donald Trump to suffer the fall from grace that, in their world, always happens to anyone who questions the eternal truth of supply-side economics or the gospel of 9/11. Even now, when it’s almost too late to stop the Trump Express, they still imagine that “But he’s not a true conservative!” is an effective attack.

Yes. Relatedly, Rubio’s attacks on Trump are very much within the boundaries of acceptable GOP orthodoxy, meaning he is constrained from going hard at the very things that are helping Trump succeed.