GOP rivals hammer Rubio

The Republican field is ganging up on Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE.

The Florida senator has been assailed in recent weeks by a host of GOP rivals, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (Texas), Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE (Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The number of crosshairs trained upon Rubio’s back is unusual, even by the rough-and-tumble standards of this year’s presidential cycle.

But the attacks also point to Rubio’s potential. Many observers believe that his poll ratings, which show him in third place nationally and in the first caucus state of Iowa, underplay his strength.

The Florida senator is the leading candidate with some appeal to the GOP establishment — something manifestly not true of the insurgent front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE or the second-place Cruz. That means other candidates who are dependent upon centrist support need to cut Rubio down if they are to stand any chance of emerging as the party’s 2016 standard-bearer.

“Rubio is by almost everyone’s account doing third-best, and rising,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida. “But he is very different from those other two, who are very anti-establishment. So for all the others who also want to appear different from Trump and Cruz, they have to elevate themselves and take down Rubio.”

Many of his rivals, and their allies, have been busily trying to do just that.

On Tuesday, Right to Rise, the main super-PAC supporting Bush, released an ad suggesting Rubio had missed “important national security briefings” to attend fundraisers. “Politics first — that’s the Rubio way,” the ad’s narrator intoned.

The ad drew immediate pushback from the Rubio camp, with the senator’s communications director, Alex Conant, tweeting that its contention that the candidate had missed a briefing on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris was “wrong. @marcorubio attended Intel briefing on Paris attack.”

Rubio’s missed Senate votes while on the campaign trail have been highlighted by other rivals, however. Christie picked up on Rubio’s failure to vote on the year-end $1.8 trillion spending package, despite having stated he was opposed to it.

“Only in Washington could you have the guts to say I’m against something that you have a vote to vote no on, and then just not go. And then put out a press release after it gets passed to say, ‘This is why I was opposed to it,’” Christie said at a town-hall event in Iowa on Tuesday.

“Well, dude, show up to work and vote no, right?” Christie continued. “Just show up to work and vote no, and if you don’t want to, then quit.”

Rand Paul, who has made a habit of issuing acerbic tweets on Dec. 23 to mark the faux-holiday of Festivus and its tradition of grievance-airing, this year wrote, “To my absentee friend @marcorubio, I didn't put your $170k+ salary in my waste report today. But I could have #Festivus.”

Paul’s chances of becoming the GOP nominee appear minuscule at this point, but both Bush and Christie are busily competing with Rubio in the establishment lane of next year’s contest. In New Hampshire, for instance, Christie is snapping at Rubio’s heels, with 11.5 percent support to Rubio’s 12.8 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average. The combative New Jerseyan will hope that persistent attacks can peel off Rubio’s supporters.

A different dynamic is in play in the case of Cruz. He and Rubio have engaged in a long-running dispute — mainly over immigration policy — that was especially fiery during the most recent GOP debate, held earlier this month in Las Vegas.

Although Cruz clearly appeals to a more conservative cohort than Rubio, he appears to see him as a serious threat. The Texan has referred at times to the “Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan” on immigration. A few days before the Las Vegas debate, Cruz asserted in an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Rubio “has far too often agreed with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Former Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Eighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation MORE.”

Cruz could be playing a complicated game, some insiders say. While he would certainly like to see a Rubio decline for its own sake, such a change would also have the likely effect of keeping the greatest number of pro-establishment candidates in the race — something which would help Cruz by splitting the center-right vote.

Rubio has not been shy about hitting back, drawing attention to past statements by Cruz that sound more equivocal on immigration reform than his current rhetoric.

But there can be dangers for candidates in attacking each other too fiercely in a multi-candidate field, as past election cycles in both parties prove. Back in 2004, for instance, Democrats Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt did trenchant verbal battle in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses — which then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLobbying world Kerry: Trump not pursuing 'smart' or 'clever' plan on North Korea Tillerson will not send high-ranking delegation to India with Ivanka Trump: report MORE (D-Mass.) won, his first step on the path to claiming the nomination.

“I think voters have come to expect negativism,” said MacManus. “But they haven’t come to like it.”