Bringing it.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

Rubio Goads Trump Into Sharing the Spotlight

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.
Read More.
a | A

Apparently, Americans like duopolies in politics, and we may have a new one this week.

Gone is Scott Walker vs. Donald Trump. The real estate mogul pounded away at the Wisconsin governor's record on jobs and revenue and away he went.

Down -- we have learned by now never to say "out" in this most unconventional Republican nomination race -- is Carly Fiorina vs. Trump. Yes, she got a lift from his misogynistic attacks and from her unflappable parries in the Sept. 16 debate. Since then, however, her checkered record as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard has caught up with her, including suggestions the company violated sanctions by selling computer parts to Iran and the fact that she pocketed millions after her dismissal by the board. Even though she got the Donald to taste crow on national television, her ascension in the polls has been fleeting.

So make way for Trump vs. Marco Rubio. One of the reasons the Florida senator is getting his turn in the ring is that he reversed a vow not to play into Trump’s hands by rising to his provocations. The CNN debate taught him that substance and gravitas just wouldn't cut it: The more serious the topic, the better Rubio did, while Trump took a pass when attention turned to weighty subjects. So it was Fiorina who got the big bounce for putting down Trump, and Rubio’s impressive performance got lost.

Fortunately for Rubio, Trump, with his unerring instinct for directing the media spotlight to its next shiny object, is more than up for the fight. Here's someone who isn’t named Jeb Bush to taunt with schoolyard insults. Trump and his codependent press corps have grown bored of a fading Bush, whose campaign was washed out this weekend by the news of the resignation of another establishment figure, House Speaker John Boehner. When Boehner’s surprise move was announced Friday at a Washington gathering of Value Voters, the party’s most conservative members, the audience cheered, another signal, if any was needed, that the base of the Republican Party really wants to throw out the bums . As Trump would say, why waste time with losers?

To earn his 15 minutes, all Rubio had to do was to man up and follow the trail blazed by Fiorina. Perhaps the only pattern to have emerged from this prediction-defying campaign is that the trickle-down coverage from engaging Trump is a candidate's best hope of getting covered. Shun the real estate salesman and you find yourself talking to a sprinkling of retirees in a coffee shop in New Hampshire while he’s filling a stadium in Dallas.

So Rubio came down from his high-minded Trump-free zone, and began to dis the mogul.  He warmed up with a few exploratory jabs: Trump, he said on Fox News, "had a really bad debate. Carly Fiorina really embarrassed him.”

Rubio hit his stride in a Sept. 24 radio interview, calling Trump “touchy” and “insecure,” a lightweight who “can’t have more than a 10-second sound bite on any key issue.” Then he went for what he thought would be the tycoon's glass jaw, mocking the low turnout at one of the Donald's events in South Carolina.  On Monday on NPR, Rubio said he did not want to be part of Trump’s "freak show," protesting just enough to be sure he would.

It has worked like a charm: Trump didn't turn the other cheek, but instead wheeled around his full persona to take on Rubio, calling him a "clown," and an ingrate ("I've been so nice to him.")

Pausing only to put out a tax plan that seems to have something for everyone and doesn't gore any oxen, Trump has fired salvo after salvo at Rubio -- about his on-again, off-again support for immigration reform, his high credit card debt (“he’s worth zero!"). He has brushed off suggestions the senator could be trouble. He’s “not a threat. He’s a baby.”

Ouch. That round, innocent face that belies his age and experience is held up as a liability by those such as Trump who like to criticize President Barack Obama for his youth. But Rubio isn’t crying: He's getting a bump in the polls, pulling ahead of Bush among the so-called establishment candidates.

But Trump’s attempts to paint him as a novice could save Rubio from the broad brush tainting all the bums to be tossed out. It’s good to look fresh and new in a race in which a reality TV producer/real estate developer is leaving veteran governors in the dust. Being a baby means Rubio is not guilty of the sin of being around too long. Old or young, unlike governors, senators don’t get anything done anyway.

Standing up to Trump isn’t going to lead Rubio to the promised land, any more than it saved Fiorina. But the reflected klieg lights of the Trump show is where the action is for those who need to demonstrate that they have the goods that Republican primary voters appear to want.

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