Sweaty. Lightweight. A no-show worker. Disloyal. A kid. A borrower “with no money, zero.”
Donald Trump has spent the past two days bashing Marco Rubio with these insults as a way to send a message: Criticize the big dog and get bitten.
On Thursday, Rubio barked back at Trump, calling him “a very touchy and insecure guy.” Rubio also attacked Trump at his points of pride: his stage presence and his poll numbers.
“He had a really bad debate performance last week,” Rubio told Kentucky Sports Radio. “He takes shots at everybody that gets anywhere close to him, in terms of a poll, or anytime he hits a rough spot that’s what he does.”
The conflict between the two men introduces a new feud to the race.
For Trump, it gives him a new target and a fresh round of headlines. The billionaire businessman had slugged it out for weeks with Jeb Bush, after taking on Scott Walker while pot-shotting almost every other candidate. Trump began attacking Rubio in force after the Florida senator leveled some of his most direct criticisms when he said Tuesday that the Republican frontrunner hasn’t “met the threshold” to be president due to his relative lack of foreign-policy knowledge.
For Rubio, it’s a gamble. It ends a long-term strategy of trying to ignore slugging it out with Trump. Rubio wants to avoid fighting on Trump’s terms. Rubio is a skill puncher. Trump’s a brawler. Polling in the middle of the pack, Rubio has been running a low-key campaign that has allowed him to pick friendly media outlets for interviews and that has kept him largely out of the spotlight of a more-critical mainstream media.
“I’ve made a decision here with Donald Trump, you know, if I comment on everything he says, my whole campaign will be consumed by it. That’s all I’ll do all day,” Rubio said in August on Meet The Press. “We’ll let him answer for what he says and so forth. At this point, I mean, we’ve got to focus on our message. Otherwise my whole campaign will be what — how do you feel about what Donald Trump said about something. He says something every day.”
But since then, Rubio has taken an increasing number of veiled shots at Trump because it plays to Rubio’s strength: foreign policy. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio wants to talk about Iran, Vladimir Putin and Cuba. The front-runner Trump is a perfect foil. That creates conflict that produces free media coverage, but it also draws Rubio into a direct confrontation with Trump, whom he has largely avoided criticizing in the same way that, say, Bush has.
Also, Rubio’s criticisms aren’t part of a plan to make the contest a two-way race with Trump — a Bush tactic. Instead, Rubio’s campaign strategy revolves around waiting for the right opportunity to make news. Unlike Bush, who isn’t comfortable personally attacking another candidate, Rubio has fewer qualms about trading barbs and belittling an opponent — a tactic he honed in his 2010 race against Gov. Charlie Crist (a Republican defector who was supported by Trump, Rubio noted during the first presidential debate).
And then there’s Carly Fiorina. She proved last week that Trump’s not invincible, landing a solid blow during the CNN debate when asked about his disparaging “look at that face” comment. She showed others that the counter-counter-punch can be pretty sweet, as shown by her surge in the polls.