Rubio & Cruz: What Are They Thinking?

The dominant storyline since the fifth Republican debate has been the ongoing Marco Rubio-Ted Cruz. CNN told us that Rubio “keeps up the pressure” on Cruz. The Week outlines how “Cruz will try to destroy Rubio.” And then today, CNN tells us that their rivalry is getting “nastier.” Candidates with lesser polling — including Bush, Fiorina, Kasich, Paul, Graham, and Pataki — have gone after Trump, but Cruz and Rubio — the candidates with the best chance to catch him — have only gone after one another. With Donald Trump so far out in front and climbing, what are the number two and three candidates thinking trying to destroy each other?

My guess is that the following line of logic is running through their heads:

  1. Premise #1: Every candidate to attack Trump has been blasted out of the water by his return fire.
  2. Therefore, one should avoid attacking him unless it’s absolutely necessary. Other candidates who are far back of the main pack have found it necessary, but these two are in second and third, still alive.
  3. Best case scenario, though increasingly unlikely, is a Trump implosion in the next month. If other candidates want to attack him in the meantime, even better.
  4. Premise #2: Also part of the calculus is peaking too early. When doing the Iowa Power Rankings last week, I at once boasted about my Cruz surge prediction from early October and shared my trepidation that, “My biggest concern, actually, is that he’s doing too well too soon.” I would think both Cruz and Rubio would not want to be out front too soon. With such a fragile and deep field, any lead that’s not Trumpesque could easily be dismantled by others enacting the balance of power doctrine.
  5. Thus, if Trump’s lead is still big one week before Iowa, that’s when it’ll be all hands on deck against Trump. The timing needs to be perfect to grab and sustain the lead.
  6. In the meantime, Cruz and Rubio want to be the clear #2. Carson is fading like Marty McFly in 1955, and the Christie or Bush’s New Hampshire surge is nothing more than hypothetical.
  7. Undecided Iowa and New Hampshire anti-Trump voters will likely look to the candidate that is closest to him when making their decision. It really comes down to one of them to vanquish Trump, and they’ll aim to do it late in the game.
  8. Conclusion: With that in mind, they’ve been attacking each other.

Hanging over all of this strategizing is the question: How in the world will they take Trump down at all? Is this just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

At Tuesday’s debate, Fiorina only nibbled at what I think is the best strategy — she hit him on being like a Democrat:

Trump: “The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion [spent on the Iraq War spearheaded by a Republican administration]. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.”

Fiorina: “That is exactly what President Obama said. I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate.”

When the GOP field unloads on Trump in late January, that will be their consistent drumbeat. Voters will not be able to avoid hearing it. Let’s face it, there is a lot of fodder there. Many of his loyal supporters will stick with him, but anyone on the fence will question whether they’re voting for a Democrat in Republican clothing. His 40 percent will be trimmed. Even if he has the most national support heading into Iowa, he won’t be able to win over most of the party, and we’ll head to a brokered convention.

Meanwhile, if Cruz, with his pure conservatism, beats Trump in Iowa, the wheels can come off pretty fast for a closet liberal that pointed to his leadership of the polls as legitimization of why he had the best campaign. If he becomes a loser in Iowa, either Cruz or Rubio will pass him across his southern base and knock him out on the southern-dominated Super Tuesday.

But will it be Cruz or Rubio? That’s what they’re fighting to determine.

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