Senator Marco Rubio seems to be deftly swatting away attacks from rivals Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, but the barrage coming his way over missed Senate votes, immigration reform, and mismanagement of personal finances have prompted him to quietly fine-tune his campaign as he rises in the polls and picks up big donors.
Moments before he formally filed for the presidential ballot Wednesday in Concord, New Hampshire, Trump told reporters that Rubio, who posted a strong third-place showing in two national polls released this week, has "very big issues" with his finances—specifically, having put thousands of dollars in personal expenses on a GOP American Express card while in the Florida state house—and is "very weak on illegal immigration. As you know, if it's up to Marco Rubio people can just pour into the country."
A few hours later, some 20 miles away at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, Rubio told reporters after a question-and-answer session with students that he'd release currently undisclosed charges on the American Express card "in the next few weeks." That represents a new concession: in 2010, Rubio told a Florida newspaper he wouldn't release the statements.
Rubio also toughened his position on immigration, making clear for the first time he'd end President Barack Obama's program to shield young undocumented "Dreamers" from deportation by stopping new enrollments. Obama's program is designed to temporarily protect people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were children.
Asked by Bloomberg if he'd end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) program even if Congress doesn't pass immigration reform, Rubio responded, "Yes, it will have to end... It cannot be the permanent policy if the United States." That's a harder stance than in April, when Rubio left some room to preserve DACA until legislative action: "I hope it will end because of some reforms to the immigration laws," he told Univision's Jorge Ramos.
Rubio's comments Wednesday about ending the executive-level protections so-called "Dreamers" led to a torrent of criticism from Democrat-aligned groups and immigration advocates, including a rebuke from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. "We should not put 650,000+ promising young people at risk for deportation," she tweeted, referring to the number that have gained temporary deportation reprieve and work permits. "Sen. Rubio is wrong on this." The issue is important because the next president can continue or end DACA, set up by Obama in 2012, with the stroke of a pen. Rubio is boxed in by growing criticism from conservatives who suspect him of being soft on immigration because of his 2013 effort to pass a bill that included a path for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.
"The gang of eight bill—that's bullcrap," said Michelle McManus of Bow, New Hampshire, referring to the legislation that Rubio co-wrote. She said she'll vote for Trump and cannot trust Rubio again. "You blow it once and that's it."
While Bush's now-famous confrontation with his former protégé in the third debate over having the Senate's worst voting-attendance record appeared to backfire on stage ("It bombed so badly," one Bush backer confided), it nonetheless appears to have led to a course correction on Rubio's part.
Two days after the debate, Rubio canceled a scheduled campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, so he could return to Washington to cast a 3 a.m. vote on the budget deal. (He voted no, but it passed.) On Tuesday, he stuck around for two afternoon votes even as he had a fundraiser scheduled in New York later that day. Appearing on CNN the next day, he countered a report that he "hates" his current job, calling it "an incredible honor to serve in the United States Senate." The first-term senator, who's giving up his seat after 2016 to run for president, has missed 40 percent of votes since April, including one on Pentagon funding Thursday while filing for the New Hampshire ballot and giving a speech calling for a "21st century" military.
At a packed town hall Wednesday evening in Nashua, New Hampshire, a man confronted Rubio on missing votes and asked, "Why not resign from the Senate?" The questioner said that would allow Rubio to focus on his presidential campaign. Rubio, citing constituent services as the "most important" part of his job, rejected the man's call. "I don't actually hate being in the Senate," Rubio added. "I'm frustrated with the Senate."
Wednesday on Fox News, the senator hit back at Trump's ongoing attacks on his immigration record, arguing that "Donald was a supporter of amnesty and of the DREAM Act, and he changed his position on those issues just to run for president." On Thursday he told reporters that Trump's attacks on his finances were "ironic" coming from "the only person who’s running for president that’s ever declared a bankruptcy." Trump makes a point of saying that he has never filed for personal bankruptcy, though his businesses have.
Even though Rubio, however subtly, has appeared to feel compelled to respond to the attacks from Trump and Bush, his backers don't seem to be fazed.
"Donald Trump will attack anybody just to get the spotlight. And Jeb Bush is frustrated with his 3 or 4 percent," said Ray Younghans, a Republican who drove to Nashua from Orange, Massachusetts to see Rubio and is strongly considering him. "They're just attacking to draw attention to themselves."
To some voters at Rubio rallies, the attacks smack of desperation.
"I guess Donald Trump sees Rubio as the top force that might survive. And I think Jeb doesn't know what he's doing right now," said Kevin Sowyrda, a 51-year-old teacher from Nashua as he held a Rubio placard. Though he's not personally bothered by Rubio's missed votes and favors him above all Republicans, Sowyrda said, "I guess the effect of the attacks is he'll be a better boy and show up for school."