The Florida senator is throwing every insult he can at his presidential rival, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump thought biker rally crowd would resemble ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Weld wins Libertarian nomination for VP Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals MORE, who has won the last three contests in the GOP primary and is poised for a big night on Super Tuesday.
The trash talk is a huge shift for Rubio and appears to be aimed at turning the tables on Trump, who has insulted everyone on his ride to a straight shot at the GOP nomination.
Trump is heading into the Tuesday contests with a 66-delegate lead over Rubio, with 82 to his 16. And Tuesday is expected to be a delegate boon for the billionaire; he leads the polls in eight of the 11 states voting in the GOP column on a day where about a quarter of the party’s total delegates will be awarded.
“It’s become clear that [if] the campaign continued exactly as it has been going for the past six months, winnowing down the field alone wasn’t going to change anything,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee spokesman.
“Let’s face it: Any candidate going after Trump on a host of serious, substantive issues is not going to get the same amount of television coverage as any of the kind of outrage de jour that Trump has created for eight months,” he continued.
Rubio debuted the new emphasis during a surprisingly aggressive debate last Thursday night, dumping his campaign opposition file onto the GOP front-runner’s lap while responding with sharp, witty barbs that appeared to knock Trump off his game.
He kept up the rhetoric on Friday and into the weekend, where he employed some of his harshest tactics. The Floridian told the Friday audience that Trump had requested a full-length mirror during the debate, questioning if the New York tycoon wanted to ensure his “pants weren’t wet.”
And on Sunday, Rubio mocked Trump’s “small hands” with a smirk that betrayed any efforts to portray the barb as tasteful.
“He’s always calling me ‘Little Marco.’ I admit, he’s taller than me; he’s like 6’2”,” Rubio said Sunday in Virginia as the crowd roared. “Which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’2”. You know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them.”
But that’s not all.
Rubio has railed against Trump University, which is at the center of a lawsuit with former attendees alleging fraud. He’s accused Trump of hiring undocumented workers for building projects. And he and his surrogates have repudiated Trump’s hesitation to disavow former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke’s endorsement of his campaign.
“If you look at the consistent theme of the past month [from Trump] ... it’s all the same thing: completely devoid of substance,” Heye said. “What Rubio is doing, and I think doing well, is combining the two. One gets the attention, and while he’s got your attention he’s making the case on substantive policy.”
That has drawn the ire of Trump, who repeatedly assailed the senator during a rally on Friday and joined up with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to bash Rubio. On Monday, his campaign called for the retraction of “libelous ads” by a super-PAC supporting Rubio that criticized him on Trump University.
One source affiliated with Rubio’s campaign brushed aside the thought that he could face criticism for comments that are less than presidential and argued that Trump’s recent flap over Duke is a sign of the larger issue.
“I wouldn’t say it’s diving into the mud; it’s fighting the guy on his playground,” the source said.
“I think he’s done it in a lighthearted way, a way he’s not up there shouting and scowling and cussing, he’s just having some fun at someone’s expense who is a total fraud. The much bigger concern for this party is to have a nominee who refused to condemn the white supremacist movement.”
The immediate result? Earned media. Clips of Rubio’s barbs have echoed across social media and television networks, some of which have started showing his campaign events in near entirety.
Then there’s evidence that the tactic has boosted his share of the cable news conversation at the expense of rival Ted CruzTed CruzDems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Meet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Party chairs see reversal of fortune MORE. Trump’s name typically amounts to almost 60 percent of cable television mentions of GOP candidates, according to analysis by The GDELT Project. But Rubio boosted his share from 19 percent on Thursday to 25 percent on Friday and 23 percent on Saturday, it reported.
At the same time, Cruz continues to slide, falling from 10 percent on Thursday to 5 percent by Saturday.
“Eighty percent of it is issues, 20 percent of it is taking a fun swipe when you can. ... It’s the only way to capture the attention of the media,” said Peter Brown, a Rubio fundraiser in South Carolina.
“Sunday morning, did you see anything about Cruz? He’s invisible. Rubio has turned this into a two-man race, and if he only talks about substantive stuff in 2016, it’s hard to get media attention.”
Despite the likelihood of a lackluster Super Tuesday, Rubio’s camp plans to press on — with the source affiliated with the campaign warning that the senator is far from done engaging Trump.
“It’s just the beginning,” the source said. “By the time this is all over, the American people are going to be fully aware of what this guy is about.”