There’s talk of bad spray tans, sweat and urination. Accusations that a rival has ties to the mob. They’ve called one another “little” or “a con artist.” And they all agree that the other guys are liars.
In the run-up to Super Tuesday, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) are hurling deeply personal attacks about one another’s appearances and personal backgrounds — amounting to a level of petty and profane discourse unprecedented in a presidential campaign. Voters express more sorrow than anger as the insults fly, while Republican Party leaders fear that the deteriorating tone of the race could have longer-term implications.
“I had hoped that this would be a campaign only about ideas and a vision for tomorrow. . . . But unfortunately, this has been a very different election year and things have worked out in ways no one anticipated,” Rubio told supporters Sunday at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.
Moments later, his rally quickly grew chaotic as protesters stood, shouted and waved signs reading, “Marco Rubio Empty Suit.”
Supporters jeered at the protesters, while Rubio responded with a smile: “My suit wasn’t made in China. It’s not a Trump suit.”
The name-calling has long been the province of Trump, who has elevated the insult-tweet to an art form and who spent months tormenting now-departed candidate Jeb Bush as “low energy” and worse. But now Trump’s two main rivals — particularly Rubio — have suddenly joined in, personally attacking the billionaire GOP front-runner, as Trump is poised for big wins in this week’s Super Tuesday primaries.
“I never thought I would see the Republican Party come to this, to act like children,” said Gail Garner, 67, who attended a Rubio rally Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. “It sounds like a bunch of kindergartners messing around on the playground.”
Party elders, already concerned about how Trump’s rise could rob the GOP of a White House victory, said they worry about how Rubio and others are now adopting his tactics.
“The catfight going on in the Republican Party right now is just an embarrassment,” said Fred Malek, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a longtime major party donor. “This is schoolyard stuff. It’s disgusting and juvenile.”
Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a supporter of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said he’s “totally embarrassed by a lot of the things Trump has said, and I understand why Rubio is swinging to the fences, but to get into who’s tall, who’s short, who’s got a decent haircut, who’s sweaty — I don’t like it.”
On the trail, Cruz has repeatedly called Trump and Rubio liars, and on Sunday he suggested that Trump is refusing to disclose his tax returns because he has close business ties to the Mafia.
“Maybe his tax returns show that those business dealings are a lot more extensive than has been reported,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”
Trump complained Sunday about the fresh attacks and suggested, as he has before, that he might leave the party if they keep up.
“I’ve been very good. I’ve been very straight and honest and honorable, and they’re not treating me well,” he said about party leaders on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
He accused Rubio of “saying terrible things, just personal, terrible things. And I don’t think it’s fair the way that the establishment is treating Donald Trump.”
On Twitter, however, Trump kept up the invective — mocking Rubio as a “little boy,” a “no-show senator” and a “lightweight.” Another tweet said Cruz “has accomplished absolutely nothing” for his Texas constituents.
At rallies in recent days, Trump also has repeatedly called Rubio “Little Marco” or “Little Rubio.” Rubio hit back Sunday night by mocking Trump at a rally at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., saying the businessman has tiny hands.
“You know what they say about men with small hands,” Rubio said, pausing for laughter. “You can’t trust them.”
At a Sunday town hall meeting in Springfield, Mass., Kasich condemned Trump’s meandering non-answer on Sunday to a question about his support from white supremacists. But he quickly described it as part of a generally nasty campaign, of rival candidates “hurling so many insults back and forth.” Asked whether he thought Rubio’s insults of Trump were inappropriate, Kasich told reporters to judge for themselves.
“All the screaming, and the yelling, and the name-calling, and the personal insults — if that’s what you’re doing, then you need to wear it,” he said.
Rubio especially has made his attacks more personal since deciding to go aggressively after Trump during the most recent Republican debate, on Thursday. The freshman senator on Friday read a series of Trump tweets aloud to thousands of supporters in downtown Dallas. He called Trump “a con artist” who “spent his entire career sticking it to the little guy.” He mocked Trump’s tough-guy demeanor, saying the front-runner “was the first guy who begged for Secret Service protection.” During Thursday’s debate, Rubio said that Trump needed extra makeup to cover up sweat and said Trump wanted a full-length mirror backstage “to make sure his pants weren’t wet.”
On Saturday in Alabama, Rubio told voters in Birmingham that “I’ve used strong words. My parents didn’t raise me that way, but I feel passionate about it.”
Then in Huntsville, he told voters that Trump “should be worrying about the lines around his eyes from the horrible spray tan.”
Rubio supporters appear to be reluctantly accepting his shift in tone.
“It’s like playground-at-the-school kind of behavior,” said Haydee Wilensky, 57, of Purcellville. “He needs to just focus on telling Republicans that Trump is not qualified.”
Trina Weir, 57, of Front Royal, Va., said, “I hate to see the sophomoric activity like that, but after the smoke clears, let’s see who’s being more substantive.”
In Huntsville, Rubio supporter Jennifer Evans, 27, said the senator needs to attack because Trump is “so insulting. He doesn’t critique the other candidates, he just flat-out insults them.”
Said Lindsey Gorin, 33, in Huntsville: “This wasn’t what Marco’s campaign was about. He’s an honest, good guy. He only brings up the spray tan because he wants to point out how stupid Trump’s attacks are.”
Weigel reported from Springfield, Mass., and Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala. Philip Rucker in Kenneshaw, Ga., and Fenit Nirappil in Salem, Va., contributed to this report.