Rubio revels in 'media attacks'

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWar over the estate tax returns Clinton’s strategy: Get under Trump’s skin Rubio, Heck help out at car crash scene MORE’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination is getting an unlikely lift from The New York Times.

The newspaper has published two unflattering stories about the Florida senator in the course of five days, including a piece about his family’s traffic violations that was widely mocked on Twitter.

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Republican strategists argue that attacks from the mainstream media, and the Times in particular, could help galvanize conservatives behind Rubio’s candidacy.

“If you’re a Republican, there is probably no better bogeyman for you than The New York Times,” said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak, who also writes for The Hill’s Contributors' blog.

Rubio tried to press his advantage Tuesday, firing back at a Times report that called attention to his personal finances, including the purchase of an $80,000 boat.

In a statement posted on Rubio’s website, spokesman Alex Conant accused the newspaper of mounting “the latest in their continued hits against Marco and his family.”

“First The New York Times attacked Marco over traffic tickets, and now they think he doesn’t have enough money. Of course if he was worth millions, The Times would then attack him for being too rich, like they did to Mitt Romney.”

The Rubio campaign later on Tuesday sent out a fundraising email to supporters, with the Florida senator arguing that he needs resources to repel “the silly media attacks against” him.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said Rubio was right to try to use the coverage to his advantage because “it’s a badge of honor to be attacked by The New York Times, the Democrats’ paper of record.” 

But O’Connell also cautioned that this was only a positive so long as the Times did not identify, in the story about finances, an area from which more embarrassing or substantial revelations might emerge.

The first Times story — and the more widely criticized — was published last Friday, revealing that Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, had received a number of citations for traffic violations over the past 18 years. 

The story was criticized for the relative triviality of the offenses.

That report also leaned heavily on the distant past and on the record of Jeanette Rubio rather than the senator. Jeanette Rubio had received 13 traffic citations since 1997, the Times reported, while Marco Rubio had received four.

The biggest controversy around the story, however, came after the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, said the Rubios’ driving records had been pulled by American Bridge, a liberal super-PAC founded by David Brock, a close ally of Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonGingrich: 'No excuse ever' for 3 a.m. tweeting War over the estate tax returns Onlooker repeatedly yells ‘Bill Clinton is a rapist’ live on Fox News MORE.

Staffers at the Times denied being given the traffic records. But to many conservatives, the furor was evidence of a liberal-led hit job.

“Marco Rubio does not look worse as a result of this story,” wrote Ian Tuttle of National Review. “It’s the Times that looks bad — petty, for expending so much effort on so minor a story and, for expending so much energy unnecessarily concealing the source of the story, deceitful.”

On Tuesday, the Times published a longer report about Rubio’s personal finances. Among the details noted were that Rubio had at one point been burdened by student debt, that he had spent profligately and that he liquidated a retirement account worth about $68,000, incurring significant fees in taxes and penalties as a result.

But there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Rubio, and there was a dispute about some of the details. The main example of flamboyant spending cited in the story was the purchase of the $80,000 “luxury speedboat.” The Rubio campaign insisted the boat in question was a more modest fishing boat.

The reaction against the latest Times stories created unusual bedfellows. MSNBC host Chris Hayes and conservative commentator Ann Coulter both suggested on Twitter that the stories were so weak they would likely help Rubio. 

Journalist Glenn Greenwald also spoke up for Rubio, tweeting, “Isn’t it a good thing if a politician has had to navigate the same financial difficulties most Americans face?”

Rubio’s pushback against the media coverage puts him in a long line of Republicans who have complained that the press is biased against them. The line runs at least as far back as Richard Nixon, who told reporters after losing a gubernatorial race in California in 1962 that “you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

More recent examples of the approach came in the 2012 campaign. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for example, won his biggest victory of the campaign after he assailed CNN’s John King for beginning a debate with a question about his private life.

The question of media bias is a vexed one. Hillary Clinton’s financial affairs, along with those of the Clinton Foundation, have been the subject of tough coverage in the Times and elsewhere. So too has her use of a private email system while secretary of State.

But trust in the media has been lower among Republican voters than among Democrats for years, according to polling by Gallup and others. This could be one reason why Republican candidates are more inclined to mount full-on media attacks.

“Running against the media seems to work better for Republicans than for Democrats because we have had this idea promulgated that reporters are liberal and therefore biased,” said Jane Hall, an American University communications professor. “I don’t believe that, and I’m sure Hillary Clinton, who has been the subject of numerous negative stories, doesn’t believe that either.” 

Republicans see it differently.

The recent stories, Mackowiak said, “indicate to me that the New York Times is vetting Marco Rubio with an absurd level of detail and specificity because they believe he is a strong candidate to beat Hillary.”