Giving as good as he gets.

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Rubio Goes Nuclear, Strengthening Trump

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Senator Marco Rubio is finally getting wall-to-wall coverage.

The debate of Republican candidates last week went his way: He portrayed Donald Trump as a con man who defrauded poor, aspiring students at Trump University, got in that Trump Tower was built with immigrant labor, and was able to needle the Donald for having no idea what he’s doing, and repeats simplistic one-liners because he knows nothing about governing. As in no debate before, Rubio showed that the builder uses fake bricks.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

Since then, and with time running short to win something, Rubio is  taking the fight to Trump on his preferred terrain of insult politics. At a rally on Sunday in Roanoke, Virginia, Rubio took the low road. Acknowledging that Trump has taken to calling him "Little Marco," Rubio said, “he's like 6'2", which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who’s 5'2"."

He added: "You know what they say about men with small hands," he paused. “You can’t trust them.”

So here we are, a penis joke and on the Lord’s Day, with kids in the audience. It was only a matter of time before all the candidates started playing by the front-runner's rules. Many of Trump’s charges are thinly veiled attacks on his competitors' masculinity. After all, he has the supermodel wife who boasts of sex twice a day and posed nude on a bearskin rug in their private jet for British GQ. Wasn’t labeling Jeb Bush low-energy really a low-testosterone charge (see the ads). Trump constantly taunts Rubio for being small and sweating like a weenie, spritzing the crowd at a rally with bottled water to make his point.

Unlike Trump, the slapdown isn't Rubio's natural medium. He is more comfortable inhabiting the persona of the optimistic young senator telling us the sun will come out tomorrow. But he’s growing -- or regressing, depending on how you see it. “Donald is not going to make America great. He’s going to make it orange,” or “Donald Trump likes to sue people. He should sue whoever did that to his face.” Next Rubio will say his mom wears combat boots.  

But it's dangerous to take on Trump on his home field. No matter how low Rubio goes, he can’t go lower than Trump and and there's no way to get under his skin. You can tell the Donald's supporters that he’s duped people like them, hurt small vendors who don’t get paid when he “takes advantage” of the bankruptcy laws and quotes Mussolini with pride. But just wait one news cycle and one rally. You will find that Trump’s feasted on insults thrown at him. Like the mutant monster in "Godzilla," which feeds on radiation, the more toxic the environment, the stronger Trump becomes.

Nonetheless, Rubio may have to keep at it, however muddy he gets, to keep Trump short of the 1,236 delegates needed to win. He has to hope Ted Cruz beats Trump in Texas, which looks probable, that John Kasich beats him in Ohio, which looks possible, and that he beats him in Florida, which, despite his bigger crowds and coverage, still looks like an uphill climb.

There’s always the chance Trump does himself in. But then again, maybe not. He seems to have an unnatural ability to survive conflagrations that would have taken down any other candidate. On Sunday, when asked whether he would repudiate the endorsement of his campaign by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the “highly educated” billionaire who knows “the best words,” and went to one of the "best schools," played dumb.

"Just so you understand, I don't know anything about David Duke, OK? I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists."

He’d rejected Duke’s endorsement a few days earlier. Did he have rejection-regret? Was it a not-so-subtle dog-whistle to some of the voters in Southern states that have primaries Tuesday? When the uproar was too much, he pretended he didn’t hear because of a faulty earpiece, which was hard to swallow given that he had repeated all the salient information in the question before giving his non-answer.

While some Republicans are hedging their bets as though we were living in the Weimar Republic, others like Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman are taking Governor Chris Christie, whom she supported for president, to the woodshed for endorsing Trump. Christie, fueled by hatred for Rubio who didn’t melt down after he creamed him in a debate, and worried about his term-limited future in his home state, needs a port in the storm. The former prosecutor may be bucking for attorney general in a Trump administration. In the meantime, he woke up Saturday to find his face on the cover of the New York Daily News with the headline “The Man with a Klan.”

Late Monday, Rubio got new fodder. BuzzFeed reported that Trump told the New York Times editorial board off the record that deportation was his opening position on immigration. The dealmaker was open to dealing. Rubio is calling on Trump to release the tape, which would give the Trump 30 percenters pause.

The New Rubio could be on to something. After all, in the 2014 remake of "Godzilla," all man-made weapons fail to defeat the mutant monster. It can only be taken down by a creature like itself, though with bigger teeth and thicker armor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net