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Opinion How two potential 2020 rivals are handling Trump

Some of the men who attacked Donald Trump most fiercely at the start of his campaign are throwing their support behind him. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Pundits, GOP operatives and former presidential advisers are dumbfounded by Sen. Marco Rubio’s statements concerning Donald Trump. Rather than mumble a quiet endorsement, the Florida Republican insists upon remaining in the limelight, digging a hole from which he may not be able to dig himself out.

The Democratic National Committee put together a devastating ad that recalls Rubio’s many admonishments that Trump was unfit to serve as president, lacked any grasp of policy, was disqualified by failure to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke — only to now say he is “honored” to speak on behalf of Trump.

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Rubio has also exasperated some Republicans by hinting he would get into the Senate race, only to say he won’t because a friend is running.

Even worse, Rubio had this exchange with Jake Tapper on CNN as he tried to defend his support for Trump:

TAPPER: But if Donald Trump asked to you speak on his behalf, you would do so?
RUBIO: I would certainly — yes. I want to be helpful. I don’t want to be harmful, because I don’t want Hillary Clinton to be president.
Look, my policy differences with Donald Trump, I spent 11 months talking about them. So, I think they are well-understood. That said, I don’t want Hillary Clinton to be president. If there’s something I can do to help that from happening and it’s helpful to the cause, I would most certainly be honored to be considered for that.
TAPPER: With all due respect, though, it — it wasn’t just policy differences that you had with him. You had issues about his temperament and his personality. . . .
RUBIO: Yes, and — and I said that I still do. I have real issues with the way that he conducted himself at certain aspects of this campaign, throughout the campaign. That remains.
He’s now the Republican nominee, or presumptive nominee, and will be the nominee. And I think he has an opportunity now to enter a second phase in this campaign.
But, again, I don’t know. I don’t — I haven’t been asked any role in the — in the convention. I don’t know of any role. But, irrespective, I intend to go because I have people who are supporters of mine who I want to interact with and — and — and be a part of.
So, my sense is I’ll be there for a few days, and who knows? . . . .
TAPPER (on camera): Donald Trump has gotten a lot of support from a lot of good, God-fearing Americans. He’s also gotten a lot of support from some — some pretty scary dudes, the white nationalists out there and the like.
Before some of the primaries, some of these hate groups did robo-calls in his behalf: Make sure to elect Donald Trump and not the Cubans.
Did that — did you ever hear about that stuff?
RUBIO: I did.
And, you know, it’s offensive, and not just against me, but the fact that elements like that are still involved in American politics, and, traditionally, the candidate would disavow that and say, I want nothing to do with that. I don’t want that as part of my campaign, and I . . .
TAPPER: He didn’t.
RUBIO: He didn’t. And I didn’t like that, and I said that at the time. And it is what it is.
Obviously, I don’t believe that Donald Trump’s a white nationalist. I don’t believe that those — that those are his views, but I do think it’s unfortunate that people like that have found the ability to express themselves in this way in a campaign, and that I didn’t like it, but I — if it wasn’t against me, I wouldn’t have liked it.
I just don’t really think there’s a place for that in our party and in our country.

Whoever is suggesting Rubio sit for such interview in which he is forced to justify his switch is only hurting Rubio’s reputation and prospects.

Consider the alternative approach taken by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Cruz has been mostly out of sight, not feeling compelled to remain in the glare of the media. (It is ironic that Cruz, famous for grandstanding, knows now is a good time to make himself scarce, letting potential rivals in 2020 tie themselves up in knots.) Cruz has not yet endorsed Trump, nor has he taken back his blistering, brilliant indictment of Trump’s personal faults. The impression one gets from the contrasting tactics is that Cruz is the more principled and disciplined of the two, more sure of himself.

It is not clear if Cruz or Rubio will run in 2020. It’s even less clear that voters in 2020 will remember what has been said over the last few days. But donors, party insiders, activists and peers are watching and taking note. Cruz seems to be defying his negative stereotype, while Rubio is reinforcing his. (Moreover, the impression they are leaving now is likely to erase the even more distant memories of 2015, when Cruz was buddying up to Trump.)

This should remind candidates that how you leave a race and what you do after you lose can be as important as how you did while in the race.