As FiveThirtyEight put it, “It may be too late for Rubio to score a victory in Florida, but he clearly didn’t want his final debate to be defined by personal attacks. The problem is that in failing to even levy much policy-based criticism, Rubio may have simply allowed Trump to coast to victory in the Sunshine State.”
Instead of pointing out Trump’s incoherence in real time, Rubio left it to his campaign, which Friday is attempting to make the point via email blasts and clips. Its rapid-response team ably underscores Trump’s nonsensical statements on Social Security, H-1B visas, Cuba and praise for dictators. The time to convey that to ordinary voters, however, was during the debate, not the Friday afternoon following it.
One can be forgiven for not understanding the tactic, or the message, in Rubio’s continued candidacy. He does not appear to be the most ferocious critic of Trump still in the race; Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), however belatedly, has stepped into that role. Rubio does not appear to be the most positive candidate; Ohio Gov. John Kasich is absconding with that role. And while Rubio gave some of the best answers in the debate on trade and foreign policy, Cruz offered as much specificity if not more than Rubio on entitlements, tax reform and K-12 education.
Rubio has now gone the extra step in urging voters in Ohio to cast ballots for Kasich. His spokesman was the first to affirmatively push Ohio voters to cast ballots for Kasich. (“If you are a Republican primary voter in Ohio and you want to defeat Donald Trump, your best chance in Ohio is John Kasich,” his communications director said on CNN.) Then Rubio personally said, “Clearly John Kasich has a better chance of winning Ohio than I do and If a voter in Ohio concludes that voting for John Kasich gives us the best chance to stop Donald Trump there, I anticipate that’s what they’ll do.”
By all appearances, Rubio is simply trying to deprive Trump of Florida and Ohio rather than continue an all-out battle for the nomination. That, one can suppose, is meant to deflect criticism that Rubio’s remaining in the race takes votes away from candidates better-positioned to beat Trump in states other than Florida. A Rubio spokesman confirms he will be in Florida through Tuesday. His super PAC, aside from Florida, is running ads only in Illinois. [UPDATE: “Marco isn’t fighting for the survival of his campaign; he’s fighting for the survival of conservatism as we know it," a Rubio friend and supporter tells Right Turn.]
Meanwhile, Cruz picked up the endorsement of National Review, which is not surprising but nevertheless confirms a shift in the perception of the race. Its editor told Politico, “Ted’s the only one with a plausible path to stopping Trump either by getting a majority himself or denying Trump a majority and finishing close behind and getting it to convention.”
Cruz also has some math on his side. Nate Silver calculates that had the other candidates dropped out sooner, “it’s likely that Cruz would have a delegate lead on Trump.” Going forward, that means, according to Silver: “Even if Trump wins both Ohio and Florida, Cruz might run relatively well against him in a one-on-one race from that point forward.”
Fair or not, many in the party who have had grave reservations about Cruz are coming around to him as the last-ditch effort to stop Trump. (“Possible Cruz supporters include reluctant Senate colleagues and former presidential rivals with strong ties to major donors,” the Associated Press reported before, in fact, Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) endorsed Cruz. “The first-term senator announced the backing of one former primary opponent, Carly Fiorina, on Wednesday. . . . On Capitol Hill, former Cruz adversary, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, has reluctantly embraced the idea of a Cruz nomination.”)
There is an irony here in that Cruz frequently has encouraged conservatives to hold out for unattainable goals and forgo half a loaf. Fortunately for him, his opponents do embrace that thinking — and hence are coming around to him. It’s going to take some doing to repair the breach between Cruz and “the establishment” he derides, but at least they have common cause in defeating Trump. Sometimes a common enemy is all one needs to let bygones be bygones.