The New York Times previews Saturday night's "get Rubio" debate, reporting that the campaigns of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are informally collaborating on methods and lines of attack in an effort to reverse the Florida Senator's momentum in the race. (UPDATE: Christie denies the story, see below). It's not official collusion, per se, but the mutual interests at play within the so-called 'establishment wing' of the field are obvious and urgent:
For Mr. Christie, the verbal barrage is a carefully calibrated attempt to damage Mr. Rubio’s standing in New Hampshire before Tuesday’s primary — and to set up a showdown with him in Saturday night’s Republican debate, possibly Mr. Christie’s best chance to impede Mr. Rubio’s surging candidacy. Mr. Rubio’s strong third-place performance in Iowa on Monday night, and his steady improvement in the polls days before the voting there, alarmed Mr. Christie and his mainstream Republican rivals, including Mr. Bush, who fear Mr. Rubio’s emerging as a breakout figure in New Hampshire. The shared concern has even prompted the opening of a back channel: Members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt Mr. Rubio’s rise in the polls, according to Republican operatives familiar with the conversations. While emails, texts and phone calls between operatives in rival campaigns are not uncommon in the tight-knit world of political strategists, the contact between senior aides in the two campaigns has drifted toward musings about what can be done to stop or at least slow Mr. Rubio, the operatives said. In a sign of a budding alliance, the aides have, for example, exchanged news articles that raise potential areas of vulnerability for Mr. Rubio. There is no formal coordination, the operatives stressed, but rather a recognition of a shared agenda. “We do have similar goals,” an adviser to Mr. Christie said. For their part, Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush are finding ways to praise one another in public and cozy up to each other in private: Mr. Bush telephoned Mr. Christie on Monday to wish him good luck in the caucuses.
Christie's been doing the heavy lifting in slamming Rubio lately, ridiculing him as "the boy in the bubble," and suggesting that the first-term Senator has zero accomplishments to his name. This dovetails into Christie's oft-repeated contention that Republican voters should choose a governor with chief executive experience, rather than a legislator. Bush, also eager to blunt Rubio's ascendancy and derail the emerging "three-man race" narrative, is throwing the kitchen sink at his former protege: His SuperPAC is criticizing Rubio for being too pro-life on abortion, and too liberal on immigration, while Bush himself has criticized Rubio from the left on immigration, and has portrayed his fellow Floridian as driven by ambition. [Please clap]. Rubio has earned a bright red target on his back by significantly exceeding expectations in Iowa, where he gained late by pitching himself as a unifying figure within the party who is best equipped to defeat the Democratic ticket in the fall. As Katie wrote earlier, a new, post-Iowa national poll from Democratic pollster PPP (which has a checkered methodological reputation, it must be said) shows Rubio surging into a second-place tie, not far behind Donald Trump. A key graf from the polling summary:
Things also bode well for Rubio as the field gets smaller in the coming weeks. In a four candidate field he gets 32% to 31% for Trump, 23% for Cruz, and 8% for Bush. In a three candidate field he gets 34% to 33% for Trump and 25% for Cruz. And in head to heads he leads both Trump (52/40) and Cruz (46/40). As other candidates drop out of the race Rubio is the most likely destination of their supporters.
That's why Christie, Jeb et al aren't the only ones who'll be gunning for Rubio over the weekend. If Rubio leaves New Hampshire with a full head of steam and a winnowing field, he poses a major threat to Trump and Cruz, too -- especially with a slew of major endorsements and Rush Limbaugh's blessing in his back pocket. It's worth mentioning that a fresh UMass/NBC New Hampshire poll has Rubio edging ahead into second place at 15 percent, still far behind Donald Trump's 36 percent support. I discussed these dynamics with Fox News' Gretchen Carlson this afternoon (via Right Sightings):
Parting thought: When Christie and friends come at Rubio with the "no accomplishments" line, what's his response? Will he point to his successful leadership that led to the defunding of Obamacare's taxpayer bailouts? That's a big mark in his favor for sure, but is he exaggerating the extent to which his legislative efforts dealt that major blow to the unpopular law? What else? He'd be crazy not to have a specific answer prepared for this challenge, because it's a fair one, and it's coming.
UPDATE - Chris Christie is denying the New York Times story, which at least purports to quote people within his camp:
Christie, on air with @greta calls NY Times report of back channel communications between his campaign & Jeb Bush's "complete baloney."— Brit Hume (@brithume) February 5, 2016
He's denying that there's an agreement between the two campaigns, but that doesn't mean there isn't informal coordination or sharing of oppo, which the story reports. I've added a question mark to my headline, for the purposes of accuracy, given Christie's comments. While you're here, I'll add this video, in which the Rubio campaign seizes on Rush Limbaugh's comments as a means of touting the Senator's conservative credentials -- as I predicted they would: