To Stop Trump, Rubio Needs to Fight on Two Fronts

The Florida senator must triangulate in time for Super Tuesday in order to deny the mogul the nomination.

Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, October 31, 2015
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, October 31, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Whatever the outcome in Nevada on Tuesday, Republican candidate Marco Rubio will need to triangulate in time for the various voting contests on “Super Tuesday” next week if he is to block Donald Trump’s path to the nomination.

About half the delegates needed to win the presidential contest are at stake on March 1. Most will be awarded more-or-less proportionally.

David Wasserman writes at The Cook Political Report that the twelve states voting that day will test Rubio’s ability to take the nominating fight to the New York property tycoon one-on-one.

The Florida senator, he points out, will need to show strength in both deep-red Southern states like Georgia and Texas — where a candidate needs at least 20 percent support to qualify for delegates — and more moderate places like Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont to prove that he really is the last man standing against Trump.

To that end, he must fight on two fronts.

Rubio’s dilemma

In the Southern United States, Rubio needs to best Ted Cruz, a far-right senator from Texas who is counting on strong support from evangelical voters to stay viable. He won the Iowa caucuses that kicked off the nominating contest earlier this month.

Up north, the main contestant for second play is more likely to be John Kasich, the pragmatic governor of Ohio who won the New Hampshire primary.

To defeat them both, Rubio will need to win over strong social conservatives who prize ideological purity as well as self-described “moderately conservative” voters who are more interested in nominating a candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November.

This has been Rubio’s dilemma from the start, as we reported when he announced his candidacy in April of last year.

Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 as a “Tea Party” conservative. He is as much a hardliner as Cruz on social issues like abortion and gay rights. His foreign policy is neoconservative to the extreme. Yet he now finds himself anointed as the “establishment” candidate in the race. Clearheaded Republicans who rightly fear that a Cruz or Trump candidacy would doom their chances in the election this year seem to have no one else to turn to.

Seth Masket, a political scientist, argues as much at Mischiefs of Faction. “Very few people in the party truly love him,” he writes about Rubio, “but nearly all can tolerate him.”

He’s good enough on most issues of importance to party insiders and, unlike the other two leading candidates, few think he’d be a disaster.

Beyond Super Tuesday

Assuming he does better on Super Tuesday than he has so far, Rubio might have a chance to put the final nail in the coffin of Trump’s candidacy just two weeks later when Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio award 292 delegates — on a winner-take-all basis, either statewide or by congressional district.

If, on the other hand, Cruz recovers some of the ground he lost with values voters in South Carolina and Trump continues to win pluralities in a three- or four-way contest, Rubio would be much harder pressed to declare himself the consensus candidate.

In addition to Cruz, Kasich could pick up delegates here and there and presumably would do well in Ohio. If all four stayed in the race, the prospect of a contested convention — which we told you in December not to worry about yet — would look a whole lot more likely.

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