While Marco Rubio didn’t place first, or even second, in the GOP Iowa caucus, his team was not shy about embracing the argument that he was the contest’s true winner. “Any candidate other than the top three finishers in Iowa are dreaming right now and shouldn’t stay in,” deputy campaign manager Rich Beeson declared during a Tuesday conference call with Rubio supporters.
As New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote, after going months with no clear alternative to Cruz and Trump, there are signs of “a party edifice consolidating behind Rubio already” — but the other Establishment candidates aren’t going to give up without a fight. As Rubio enjoyed his new Establishment favorite status on Tuesday, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich plotted to thwart his ascent, hopefully in next week’s New Hampshire primary.
All three candidates have been focusing on New Hampshire for some time, and they’re attempting to paint Rubio as a latecomer who hasn’t gotten to know voters there. Christie took the most aggressive stand against Rubio. “Maybe he’ll do more than 40 minutes on a little stage telling everybody his canned speech that he’s memorized,” the New Jersey governor told reporters on Tuesday. “This isn’t a student council election, everybody. This is an election for president of the United States. Let’s get the boy in the bubble out of the bubble.”
Kasich issued a general call for the race to take a more genteel tone, saying, “People ought to take down negative ads and tell the people in the last week what they’re for.” His own campaign didn’t take his advice. Two days ago the Kasich super-pac New Day for America made a preemptive attack against Rubio, noting that he voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. After complaints from the Kasich campaign that ad was pulled, but aides still took jabs at Rubio on Tuesday. “While [Rubio] has a unique political talent he hasn’t really done the New Hampshire campaigning. He’s not had a heavy schedule, he’s not had a heavy ground game,” Kasich chief strategist John Weaver told Politico.
Bush took a different tactic, hammering Rubio (and Cruz) for being too young to be commander-in-chief. The former Florida governor, who is 62, said at a town-hall meeting in Rindge that 44-year-old Rubio and 45-year-old Cruz are a lot like President Obama: They’re “gifted in how they speak, but what about their life experience? Is there something in their past that suggests they have the capability of making a tough decision?” According to the Washington Post, Bush will underscore that point in the coming days by campaigning with his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush.
Rubio fired back at Christie with a few Trump-esque barbs, noting that the governor, “did very poorly yesterday” and “sometimes when people get disappointed they react poorly.” But generally, he’s attempted to take the high road, saying Tuesday on CNN that he’s “not running to beat up on other Republicans.” At a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire, he painted himself as the one candidate who can unite the two factions in the GOP, promising, “If I’m our nominee I will bring our party and the conservative movement together. I will unify us.”
Behind the scenes, Rubio’s taken a much more aggressive stance against the other three Establishment candidates. The New York Times reports that just minutes after the race was called on Monday night, Rubio’s team was calling and texting their donors and trying to convince them to switch sides. His effort may be working; on Tuesday morning the Bush campaign held two conference calls with top donors and finance officials, and according to one participant they acknowledged that many donors were likely to back Rubio if Bush doesn’t perform well in New Hampshire. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘rattle of death’?” the person told Politico.
While Iowa made Rubio the biggest immediate concern for Bush, Kasich, and Christie, they reserved a bit of hostility for each other too. Despite the concerns expressed in Tuesday’s call to supporters, Bush spokesperson Tim Miller suggested that the former Florida governor can keep battling Rubio for the Establishment for weeks. “Christie and Kasich have no organization or appeal after New Hampshire,” he said, “whereas Jeb is third in South Carolina and has the best team on the ground for a caucus in Nevada.”
Rubio has several points on Bush in Nevada, and Trump or Cruz will almost certainly win all of those states, but Miller is right: The battle for the Establishment vote isn’t over yet.