Campaigning Tuesday in Iowa, Chris Christie didn’t want to answer Donald Trump’s scathing criticism Monday of his governing record. But he was eager to blast Marco Rubio for failing to show up and vote in the Senate.
“Dude, show up to work and vote no; and if you don’t want to, then quit,” Christie told voters during a town hall meeting in Muscatine, Iowa.
It’s the exact same line of attack against the Florida senator that Jeb Bush’s super PAC is now featuring in a new $1 million New Hampshire TV ad buy alleging that Rubio skipped a high-level intelligence briefing following the ISIL terror attacks in Paris in order to raise money for his campaign.
“Over the last three years, Rubio has missed important national security hearings and missed more total votes than any other senator. Politics first, that’s the Rubio way,” the narrator in the Right to Rise ad says.
The attacks are politically fraught for both establishment challengers: Christie has hardly shown up in Trenton to do his own job since committing to campaign almost full-time in New Hampshire; and Bush’s own attempt to prosecute this case against his former mentor in a late October debate backfired so spectacularly it prompted calls for him to drop out.
But with the starting gun of the primary fight little more than a month away, both contenders appear to be eyeing Rubio as their biggest obstacle in consolidating support from mainstream Republicans — and they’re zeroing in on what they see as the senator’s biggest weak spot just as he’s trying to close the sale.
“What you’re seeing is the clearest evidence of how wide open the center-right lane of the caucus electorate is in Iowa,” said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa GOP chairman who is uncommitted. “Those are all candidates that would love to get some momentum that will help them make their case in New Hampshire.”
“Both Bush and Christie see Rubio as the front-runner in that lane, and they’re trying to take him down so they have a better shot at it,” said Douglas Gross, who served as Mitt Romney’s 2012 Iowa finance chairman but, like a number of establishment conservatives, remains uncommitted.
The substance of the attack on Rubio not showing up to vote may matter less to establishment Republicans in Iowa, who are still trying to determine whether the young first-term senator is truly the GOP’s best general-election candidate. “I keep hearing that Rubio is people’s favorite among [choices Rubio, Bush and Christie] not because they love his voting record but because they think he’s the party’s best shot to beat Hillary Clinton,” Gross said. “So the other candidates really have to attack that electability narrative if they’re going to bring him down.”
But the absenteeism takedown has a chance of resonating in New Hampshire, where it runs parallel to recent stories about the Florida senator’s relatively light campaign schedule being a particular affront to an electorate that relishes its first-in-the-nation responsibility and demands accessibility from candidates.
“New Hampshire voters demand respect for their process and their prerogatives,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “The theme of Rubio’s absence from the state is likely to continue to be the focus of both Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.”
New Hampshire, after all, looks to be a decisive battle that will cull the establishment side of the primary down to one or two serious contenders. Christie is within striking distance of Rubio in an average of New Hampshire polls, trailing him just 11.5 percent to Rubio’s 12.8 percent. Bush, meanwhile, has an average of 7.8 percent in the state, well above his national average of 4.4 percent. With no clear consensus front-runner among the four candidates seeking a ticket out of the state (Ohio Gov. John Kasich being the fourth), the race may break in the eight days between the Iowa caucuses and the primary on Feb. 9.
“The four candidates that fit in that establishment lane understand that only one, maximum two of them, are coming out of New Hampshire,” Schmidt said. “The degree to which Christie and Jeb can collapse any chance of Rubio winning New Hampshire, they exit with a comeback narrative and it pushes to the outer limits the place where Rubio has a chance to get his first victory.”
According to a recent analysis by C-SPAN, Rubio has a 64 percent voting record in 2015, the worst of the five senators who have run for president this cycle. Rubio’s campaign, which noted that his overall voting record since taking office in 2011 is “almost 90 percent,” fired back Tuesday with a lengthy statement rebutting the claims.
“Bush’s team dishonestly omits that Marco is on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, where he attended the highest level briefings on the Paris attacks,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in a statement to reporters. “No other candidate for president has received more classified Intelligence briefings or better understands the threats facing our nation today than Marco. It’s sad to see Jeb’s ‘joyful’ campaign reduced to such intellectual dishonesty.”
Rubio did miss the post-Paris briefing but had just a day earlier attended an Intelligence Committee meeting, according to his campaign, which pointed to a story in the Tampa Bay Times describing that meeting as “more in-depth and contain[ing] higher classified information than other briefings.”
Rubio’s rapid-response operation was also quick to blast out statements from two House Intelligence Committee members defending his attendance record and ripping the Bush super PAC ad as “dishonest.”
“I’m proud to support Marco, who understands more than any other candidate the threats facing our country, knows how we can defeat ISIS and is ready to be commander in chief,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a former Air Force pilot. “It’s disappointing that Jeb Bush’s super PAC decided to discard clear facts for political gain. Jeb Bush is better than the Los Angeles-based super PAC trying to deceive voters.”
The Conservative Solutions super PAC that’s backing Rubio also responded quickly, with a new video highlighting Bush’s past statements praising Rubio and concluding in black-and-white text across the screen: “Politics changes some people.” In an accompanying fundraising pitch to supporters, the PAC’s chairman laments that the attacks in Iowa are coming from Bush, “a candidate with no chance of winning in the state, or of winning the nomination, frankly.”
“Jeb’s allies have spent tens of millions while his campaign has tanked, now they’re trying to ruin another campaign and the GOP’s best chance at taking back the White House and defeating the Clinton machine,” Warren Tompkins writes in the email.
But Christie making the same argument against Rubio amplifies an attack that Bush, because of his close past relationship with his former Florida colleague, is poorly equipped to make. And unlike Bush, attacking comes naturally to Christie, who lambasted Rubio on Tuesday for missing the vote earlier this month on the end-of-year spending package he said he opposed.
“So, I can’t wait to turn on C-SPAN 2, because he gives a good speech, Marco, and I want to hear his stirring speech that’s going to try to persuade people on the floor of the Senate not to vote for this awful spending bill,” Christie said during a stop at a coffee shop in Muscatine. “Except he never showed up. He was totally opposed to it and didn’t go there to vote no. Then what’s it matter that you’re opposed to it?”
Rubio, campaigning in Iowa on Tuesday afternoon alongside Rep. Trey Gowdy, who had just endorsed him, cooly shrugged off Christie’s charge, picking up on the irony that makes him, too, an imperfect messenger on this subject. “Chris is missing from New Jersey half the time,” he told reporters.
If Christie can make inroads in Iowa, he could potentially blunt Rubio’s momentum and create enough of his own to springboard into New Hampshire, where he has focused his campaign. But, according to Gross, a number of undecided establishment Iowa Republicans are more inclined to support Rubio as long as he can withstand the barrage of attacks coming his way in January.
“I think people also want to see how well he holds up under fire, how well he can perform, how tough he is,” Gross said. “That segment of the party is very pragmatic: They want to know who has the best shot at winning. So more than the substance of it, it’s how he reacts to it. If he can’t handle Bush and Christie on attendance, how’s he going to handle Hillary Clinton?”
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