New York Times
By Jeremy Peters and Ashley Parker
February 28, 2016
It is the kind of campaign he said he would never run. But Senator Marco Rubio, seeing his path to the Republican nomination grow narrower with each contest, has determined that the only way to beat Donald J. Trump is to fight like him: rough, dirty and mean.
The acidity coming from Mr. Rubio these days, and the gleefully savage way Mr. Trump has responded, have sent an already surreal presidential campaign lurching into the gutter with taunts over perspiration, urination and self-tanner.
On Sunday, the hits were more substantive, but no less aggressive: Mr. Rubio scoffed at Mr. Trump’s clothing line — “those tacky ties” — and criticized him for making them in China. He said Mr. Trump’s education business, Trump University, was a scam that essentially stole tens of thousands of dollars from its students. And he expressed astonishment that during a television interview Sunday morning, Mr. Trump refused to repudiate the white supremacist David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan.
“We cannot be a party who nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists,” Mr. Rubio said, to roaring approval from the crowd.
Mr. Trump, who has been accused of stirring up racial strife, handed his critics more ammunition on Sunday when he refused the opportunity to distance himself from Mr. Duke and the Klan. Asked repeatedly to do so in an interview with CNN, he demurred. “You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about,” he said. “I would have to look.”
Later he backtracked, posting on Twitter, “I disavow.”
Mr. Rubio’s headfirst lunge into a bout with Mr. Trump is a striking turnaround that the Florida senator himself calls disappointing. But it also reflects a conclusion that his above-the-fray approach was ineffective against a front-runner who seems to gain popularity with each fight he picks.
“I had hoped that this would be a campaign only about ideas,” Mr. Rubio told the crowd of more than 3,000 here, in the far suburbs of Washington, as he accused Mr. Trump of being a fraud, a threat to national security and possibly even a racist.
“I need your vote Tuesday,” Mr. Rubio told his audience, which was about as rowdy and animated as any he had drawn. “Friends do not let friends vote for con artists.”
Virginia is one of more than 10 delegate-rich states that will vote in the Super Tuesday contests this week — others include Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Massachusetts — most of which Mr. Trump is favored to win.
But Mr. Trump was not content on Sunday to rest on his polls: He picked up the endorsement of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a vehement opponent of the immigration overhaul that Mr. Rubio championed in 2013, in a boisterous late-afternoon rally outside Huntsville, Ala.
“I told Donald Trump, ‘This isn’t a campaign, this is a movement,’ ” Mr. Sessions said, looking out over a crowd of thousands.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, campaigning in Oklahoma, tried to keep himself in the thick of the Republican fight by attacking Mr. Trump over his use of foreign workers. But Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, all but conceding the Super Tuesday contests, lamented the demolition derby-like state of the primary contest, hoping his sense of decorum would help him win over voters in Massachusetts.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont both attacked Mr. Trump, as Mrs. Clinton all but ignored Mr. Sanders in courting black voters in Tennessee, while Mr. Sanders, campaigning in Oklahoma and Colorado, declared that “love trumps hatred.”
Mr. Rubio has seemed to sense that he could pay a price if he is seen as engaging in the kind of bullying that Mr. Trump has trademarked.
“These are facts,” he said, explaining his attacks on Sunday, “about an individual who wants access to the nuclear codes for America.”
As they watched Mr. Trump clinch his third straight victory with a win in the Nevada caucuses last week, Mr. Rubio and his aides concluded that the only way to beat him was to get inside his head, by stooping to his level: Taunt, insult, mock and have a blast doing it.
They seem satisfied that it is working.
“We came to the conclusion that if being a part of the circus is the price you have to pay in order for us to ultimately be able to talk about substantive policy, then that’s what we’re going to do,” said Todd Harris, a senior Rubio adviser.
Mr. Harris noted that Mr. Rubio’s speeches were now being carried live on television. And if the price of admission, he added, was talking about “how Trump is a con man, with a bad spray tan,” so be it.
What has followed is a race that looks more like a variety show than a campaign to elect the most powerful leader on earth.
So far, Rubio supporters seem surprised by, if open to, his change in tone.
Alison Whiteley, a retiree in her 50s who saw Mr. Rubio speak in Oklahoma City on Friday, said the race had turned “uglier” this cycle, but she did not blame Mr. Rubio, whom she supports. “Rubio would not be acting like this if it wasn’t for Trump,” she said. “He has to stand up for himself because Trump is just running all over everybody.”
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