Marco Rubio has adopted a darker tone in the first week of 2016, deploying increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric and fiercer attacks on Republican rivals that provide a stark contrast with the relatively non-confrontational brand of sunny optimism that had characterized his presidential campaign through 2015.
Running behind the edgier campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz nationally and in key early states, the young first-term senator needs to put big points on the board in Iowa and New Hampshire in order to stave off an early collapse, and as a result he's waging ongoing battles against three Republican rivals.
On Tuesday, Rubio released a TV ad that features him speaking directly to the camera. “Barack Obama released terrorists from Guantanamo, and now they are plotting to attack us,” Rubio says, as ominous music plays in the background. “His plan after the attack in San Bernardino: take away our guns.” The same day, he told a crowd in Mason City, Iowa, “If we get this election wrong, there may be no turning around for America.”
On Wednesday, Rubio sent supporters an e-mail under the all-caps subject line “FIGHT FOR GUN RIGHTS” and warned that “Obama has waged a war on the Constitution” with his new executive actions aimed at expanding background checks for gun purchases. And shortly after North Korea claimed it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the first-term U.S. senator from Florida released a statement declaring, “Our enemies around the world are taking advantage of Obama's weakness.”
While Rubio isn't jettisoning the hopeful message of reviving the American dream that endeared him to many center-right Republicans, he's now alternating it with a more ominous one. The effect is to make him sound like Ronald Reagan one minute and like a character from the popular TV series 24 the next.
“If we capture a terrorist alive, we're not reading them Miranda rights, they're not going to be hired a lawyer and we're going to give them a one-way ticket to Guantanamo, where we're going to find out everything they know,” Rubio said Tuesday, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of close to 200 gathered at a trucking company headquarters in Fort Dodge, Iowa. A few minutes later, he oscillated back to a more upbeat tone.
“We will not just save the American dream. We will expand it to reach more people and change more lives than ever before,” he said. “And when our work is done, the 21st century will not just be as good as the 20th century, it is going to be better.”
Rubio's more aggressive tone comes as his path to the nomination has grown complicated. He's in third nationally in an average of recent polls, significantly lagging two rivals who have made anger the hallmark of their campaign rhetoric: Rubio is about 24 points behind Trump and 9 points behind Cruz. In Iowa, where the first votes of the presidential campaign will be cast in Feb. 1 caucuses, Rubio stands in third place, about 20 points behind Cruz. In New Hampshire he's in second place, 13 points behind Trump, barely leading Cruz and Chris Christie. No Republican under modern primary rules dating back to the 1970s has won the nomination after losing the first two states.
The duality in Rubio's message—sometimes sunny, sometimes dark—reflects his strategy to appeal to all factions of the Republican Party, including the establishment, Tea Party, and evangelical wings. As a result Rubio's support is broader, but less intense, than that of rivals, who are focusing their appeals more exclusively on one the party's various constituencies. For Cruz that's meant a focus on Iowa, with its disproportionately large evangelical vote, while Jeb Bush and Christie are zeroing in on New Hampshire, which has a more establishment-friendly Republican electorate.
“The differences between us and other candidates is that some candidates are focused on only one place and we, of course, are campaigning in multiple places,” Rubio told the Des Moines Register's editorial board on Wednesday.
Rubio is also battling multiple rivals for the various constituencies he's trying to win. He used a Monday speech on foreign policy to paint Cruz and Rand Paul—rivals for the Tea Party and evangelical vote—as “isolationist candidates who are apparently more passionate about weakening our military and intelligence capabilities than about destroying our enemies.” Rubio said the Islamic State terrorist group would have lobbied for the USA Freedom Act, a law to limit bulk government collection of Americans’ phone records. Cruz supported the legislation. Meanwhile Rubio’s campaign also continued to circulate articles Wednesday questioning Cruz’s consistency on conservative causes, continuing a battle that the young Cuban-American senators have been waging for two months.
At the same time, Rubio is also battling Christie, who has emerged as his chief establishment rival in New Hampshire, which will hold the first primary election of the Republican nominating contest on Feb. 9. After a pro-Rubio super-PAC released two TV ads in the Granite State bashing Christie as too liberal and cozy with President Obama, Christie told the Washington Post that Rubio cannot “slime his way to the White House” and attacked the Floridian for supporting “amnesty” in 2013, referring to his immigration bill. That prompted a counter-attack from Rubio’s campaign spokesman.
Also in New Hampshire, Rubio's campaign and super-PAC are fighting back against an attack ad by Bush's super-PAC Right to Rise bashing the Floridian for missing Senate national security briefings as he runs for the presidency. The pro-Rubio group Conservative Solutions PAC is running TV ads in the Granite State defending him against the Bush attack and touting his foreign policy credentials.
Rubio is poised to return to New Hampshire on Thursday for three campaign events over two days to close out the week. His bifurcated campaign approach and multi-pronged attacks has made him recipient of a flurry of simultaneously incoming Republican arrows—from Cruz, Paul, Bush, and Christie.
“I just think it's kind of funny that the guy who very righteously stood up on the stage and lectured Jeb Bush, saying 'Someone must have told you that attacking me would help you'—apparently the same person now must be talking to Marco and telling him that attacking me will help him,” Christie said Wednesday on MSNBC.