Cruz Would Rather Fight With Rubio Than Trump

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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LAS VEGAS — For a long time, there was a hope that [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] would eventually emerge as the Republican nominee. He still appears to be the best possible General Election candidate to face Hillary Clinton, and his eloquence and optimism would help rebrand conservatism into a philosophy that could win the 21st century.

And he still might win. But increasingly, people I talk to are skeptical and losing patience. Yes, there is a hope that Rubio will have a breakthrough moment, but when? Rubio’s team has long suggested that they were biding their time — that they were content with slowly, but surely, growing. In essence, they didn’t want to peak too soon. They were content to play their own game, and to do so mostly under the radar.

We have now arrived at a moment in time when — if you’re ever going to “turn it on” — the time to hesitate it through.

Even if Donald Trump eventually collapses (still a big “if”), one gets the sense that [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] is both more ambitious and devious than Rubio. He seems to want it more. And while Rubio excels at eloquent rhetoric and inspiring messages, Team Cruz seems to have invested more resources in building a ground game and grassroots (and technological) infrastructure required to turn-out his supporters at the polls and caucuses (I say seems because it’s impossible to know exactly what’s taking place on the ground).

This, of course, brings us to tonight’s debate. It is likely the media will want a Trump vs. Cruz clash. It is also likely that Trump will, at least, needle Cruz. However, it seems predictable that Cruz will use every trick at his disposal to avoid clashing with Trump.

In fact, I agree with Erick Erickson that a Cruz v. Rubio fight is more likely. Both men are skilled debaters, so I put this one at a draw. But were I advising Rubio, I think here are a few soundbites he should have chambered, just in case the situation should arise:

“Ted, you’ve billed yourself as a fighter, but you don’t appear to be much of a fighter when it comes to Donald Trump.

“You say the media is just trying to stir up Republican in-fighting, and that you’re focused on beating Hillary. That’s what I’m focused on, too. But it’s funny, because you more than willing to publicly call the Republican majority leader a ‘liar‘ on the Senate floor when that suited your political ambitions.

“You say you’re a fighter, but while you were reading ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ on a symbolic attempt to ‘fight’ Obamacare, I was actually the only Republican to pass any sort of provision that might actually kill it, by accelerating the ‘death spiral,‘ and making sure the taxpayers aren’t forced to bail out insurance companies.

“You might not care much about legislating, but just the other day, Donald Trump — Donald Trump! — questioned your temperament, and your ability to get things done, by saying you acted like a ‘maniac’ in the Senate. When Donald Trump thinks you have a temperament problem, you might have a temperament problem.

But it’s your willingness to to do almost anything so long as it suits your political ambitions that I find most interesting. Just the other day, it was reported that your campaign was using harvested data on millions of Facebook users in order to profile them for your campaign. It’s funny, because when our national defense experts wanted to use metadata to keep us safe from terrorists, you joined [crscore]Rand Paul[/crscore] in arguing that was an invasion of privacy.”

Cruz is a brilliant debater, and I have no doubt he would have some sort of response, even if it’s just to invoke the term “amnesty.” Still, it would be fascinating to see what would happen should Rubio unleash this sort of attack, should Cruz decide to pick a fight with Rubio in lieu of a fight with The Donald. Don’t be surprised if at least a few of these lines make their way into tonight’s big event.

Ultimately, though, it seems that Cruz understands something that Rubio doesn’t quite get. Fair or not, Trump and Cruz now own the “very conservative” or “anti-establishment” (for lack of a better term) lane. That’s why Cruz, who assumes he might inherit Trump’s supporters if and when he flames out, would prefer to mix it up with Rubio.

Conversely, Rubio could inherit the “moderate”/”establishment”/”somewhat conservative” lane, which — with Jeb Bush’s failure to catch fire — is wide open. But he doesn’t really seem to want it.

Rubio could possibly have his cake and eat it too, but that would require some finessing. The trick would be to muddy the waters with Cruz on the issues the conservative base cares about (say, Obamacare, for example), and then run up the score with more mainstream or moderate Republican voters.

But Rubio seems to have been so chastened by the backlash over his support for immigration reform, that he’s not fully executing the second part of this strategy. And that’s silly, because there’s a wide-open lane he could be seizing.

Note: The author’s wife previously consulted for Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign.

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