HOUSTON — This morning on CNN, I suggested that [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] and [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] would continue to cannibalize each other during tonight’s debate, and not go after Donald Trump. (In the wake of the Chris Christie takedown, Rubio doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who loves direct confrontation, and Trump is the last guy you’d probably want to pick a fight with.)
But a few hours later, I had a different take. What happened?
In the intervening hours, two things have surfaced that have made me inclined to think Rubio and Trump just might mix it up, after all.
First, Rubio is getting clobbered in the polls by Trump in Florida (for what it’s worth, his team doesn’t believe the polls, and reminds us a lot of things will happen between now and the Florida). Second—and more importantly—media reports surfaced showing that Rubio had begun attacking Donald Trump by name on Wednesday night.
It’s possible that Rubio’s comments were an example of a candidate honing his message and, inadvertently, telegraphing an attack on Trump. In other words, he might have let some of his debate preparation slip out. Or maybe not. Regardless, having gone after Trump on the eve of a debate, Rubio may now be forced to confront The Donald during the debate, whether he wanted to, or not.
Here’s why: In 2011, Tim Pawlenty went on Fox News Sunday and attacked Mitt Romney over what he called “Obamneycare.” But during the next debate, when asked about it by a moderator, Pawlenty demurred. The appearance was that T-Paw chickened out—that he didn’t have the guts to say it when Mitt Romney was looking back at him on stage.
In response, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant dismissed the incident, suggesting that CNN moderator “John King wanted more of an intra-party squabble between all the candidates.” It was spin, and Pawlenty’s campaign didn’t last much longer. Interestingly, Conant, is now Marco Rubio’s spokesman. And if anybody knows the damage that comes from teeing up the media, raising expectations, and then failing to deliver, it’s Conant.
There’s no doubt he now expects his guy to be asked—on stage—about his comments last night. And we’ll see if Rubio is willing to attack Donald Trump while he’s standing on stage with him. How Marco Rubio handles this likely moment may tell us much about his chances going forward.