2016 Elections

Rubio Turns to National Security in Crucial Campaign Stretch

His odds of beating Trump and Cruz are slim, but foreign policy establishment still believes in Rubio.

Now what?

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Republican foreign-policy establishment in Washington is coalescing around Marco Rubio in a final effort to oppose both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as the campaign enters a pivotal phase.

Rubio is doubling down on his campaign’s argument that he is the best candidate on national security by announcing a new foreign policy advisory council made up of officials and experts from several other failed campaigns. The group is a mix of ideologies and strong personalities, but they have all decided that Rubio is their last, best bet to promote the conservative, internationalist approach they all seek.

The Rubio campaign plans to roll out its National Security Advisory Council Monday, following tough losses in the Super Saturday states that saw Trump and Cruz win in two states each. Rubio is making a final push toward the March 15 primaries, which include his home state of Florida, and national security will be a big part of his effort going forward.

“The National Security Advisory Council will provide strategic advice to Marco and to the campaign regarding foreign policy, defense, intelligence and homeland security issues,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told me. “The group will lend their considerable expertise to Marco's efforts to make the case for American leadership in an increasingly uncertain world.”

The group includes some former members of the team Jeb Bush team rolled out over a year ago, including former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, former State Department official Paula Dobriansky and Ambassador Kristen Silverberg. Former Senator Norm Coleman, who was with Lindsey Graham’s campaign, has signed on. The Rubio team also includes former Senator Jim Talent, who led the foreign policy advisory team for Governor Scott Walker when he was running for president.

“The reality is that Marco, Jeb and Lindsey on foreign policy aren’t that far apart,” Coleman told me. “You’ve got one guy left in this race that understands what’s going on and what needs to be done, and that’s Marco.”

The new Rubio advisory group also includes two of the three founders of the John Hay Initiative: former Bush administration officials Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman. The Hay Initiative was meant to be a stable for foreign policy officials and experts that all the Republican candidates could use as a resource. They provided help to Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina before they dropped out. While neutral, the Hay initiative now seems to be lining up behind Rubio with the rest of the party establishment.

Cohen told me that has a lot to do with the establishment opposition to Trump and his policies. Cohen led an effort last week to collect signatures from over 50 Republican foreign policy experts and former officials pledging not to support Donald Trump.

“I am very struck by the extent of opposition to Trump among mainstream foreign policy figures,” he said. “People who disagree with each other about a whole bunch of things and really strikingly united against Trump and what he stands for.”

Some members of the new Rubio national security team have been with him from the beginning. These figures, while perhaps not as senior as the former advisers to Bush, made an early bet on Rubio and have been with the campaign for a while. They include former Dick Cheney adviser Aaron Friedberg, former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios, and former Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph. Dan Senor, former adviser to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, has been informally advising Rubio since last year.

The Rubio campaign also has a network of working groups on foreign policy that are led by Rubio’s national security counselor in the Senate, Jamie Fly. The leader of the national security working group is former House Armed Services Committee staffer Roger Zakheim. Throughout the working groups, former Bush and Walker advisers are coming over to Rubio.

Dan Runde advised Walker on foreign policy before moving to the Bush campaign. Now, he has signed on to help Rubio. “Of the remaining field, Marco Rubio is as strong as Jeb Bush is on a conservative foreign policy,” he said. “It’s understandable that many of the people who supported and advise him will immediately look toward Marco Rubio.”

Rubio’s late push on foreign policy may not save his campaign. Polls show that foreign policy is among the top concerns of voters, but Republican voters clearly favor outsiders over the establishment this cycle. But most Republican national security experts in Washington are siding with Rubio anyway, because they just can’t stomach the alternatives.

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