In perhaps the most tumultuous day yet of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida pressed his attack on front-runner Donald Trump as a con artist at a Friday morning rally in Dallas, only to be upstaged 30 miles to the west and about three hours later when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Trump before a vastly larger crowd at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
Rubio and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas effectively teamed up with one another Thursday night in the most sustained and successful assault yet on Trump, who was standing center stage between the two young first-term senators during a GOP presidential debate at the University of Houston. But, by midday Friday, Rubio was being double-teamed by Trump and by Christie, who had proved to be Rubio’s nemesis at the New Hampshire debate that cost the Florida senator his early momentum from a surprisingly strong third-place showing in Iowa and sent him reeling to a fifth-place finish in the Granite State.
Meanwhile, with the epic back-and-forth between Trump and Rubio on his home turf, Cruz, with stops in Nashville, Tenn., and Virginia Beach, Va., was campaigning in two of the other southern states that are among those voting with Texas on Tuesday.
If Cruz wasn’t dominating the news cycle Friday, he might have been benefiting nonetheless from the dramatic clash between his two top rivals.
Rubio, and to a lesser extent Cruz, drew blood from Trump at Thursday night’s chaotic and discordant debate, and, on a crisp morning in downtown Dallas, Rubio, riding high on favorable post-debate coverage, picked up Friday where he had left off, unleashing a withering assault on Trump.
“It’s time to pull his mask off. … What we are dealing with is a con artist,” Rubio told a crowd of about 2,000 at Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park. “The charade is up. This is a con job where he’s going to Americans that are struggling, Americans that are hurting, and he’s implying, ‘I’m fighting for you because I’m a tough guy.’”
Rubio read Trump’s recent tweets and added punch lines. After noting several misspellings by Trump, Rubio said, “Just like Trump Tower, he must have hired a foreign worker to do his own tweets.”
In what could be described as a Trumpian performance, Rubio also joked that Trump might have wet his pants during the debate and had a sweat mustache.
The sheer ferociousness and aggressive humor of Rubio’s attack had the political media agog, but, even as he was speaking, Trump tweeted: “Lightweight choker Marco Rubio looks like a little boy on stage. Not presidential material!”
And soon enough, Trump had out-Trumped Rubio, introducing Christie to stunned reporters at a news conference in Dallas at which the former rival, but longtime friend, endorsed Trump as the man who can defeat Hillary Clinton and be the “strong leader” America needs.
Then Trump took the stage at the Fort Worth Convention Center to raucous applause and chants of “U.S.A.” from a crowd estimated at about 7,000, and he wasted no time ripping into Rubio as a “lightweight senator who’s losing big” and a “little frightened puppy.” He said Rubio applies makeup with a trowel to cover up his big ears, and that he sweats so prodigiously that he leaves a puddle of sweat under him when speaking publicly. Trump added, “He’s a nasty guy, and we don’t need nasty.”
Trump’s counterpunch gained enormous heft with the dramatic entrance of Christie, who slammed Rubio for missing Senate votes while running for president: “President of the United States is not a no-show job like you treated the United States Senate.”
Campaigning in Nashville, Cruz said of Christie, “I think the endorsement was probably troubling news for the Rubio campaign.”
By daybreak, Rubio seemed to be gaining traction in presenting himself as the establishment hope to stop Trump. But the Christie endorsement could foreshadow growing Republican establishment acceptance of what could, in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, appear to be a Trump juggernaut.
Christie’s endorsement also lent an air of gravitas to the Trump campaign, even as Rubio had appeared to hit a nerve with his characterization of the tycoon-turned-reality-TV-star as nothing more than a big-talking flimflam man.
The endorsement isn’t expected to have much impact in Texas, and for Cruz, the spectacle of his two chief rivals savaging one another was all good.
Cruz said he is the only consistent, predictable conservative in the race, and that the last thing Republicans should want is a general election pitting against each other “two rich New York liberals” in Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Cruz has led most polls in Texas, although Trump has recently closed in. But a strong showing by Rubio could score him some delegates, which are doled out proportionally in Texas based on a combination of statewide results and those in each of the state’s 36 congressional districts.
Urban areas like Dallas, where several Democratic-dominated congressional districts converge, might be ripe for the picking because candidates could theoretically score delegates by winning over a relatively small number of GOP voters.
But, if Cruz carries the day, even without getting more than half the vote, he could accumulate 100 or more of the state’s 155 delegates.
Rubio is looking forward to Florida’s winner-take-all primary March 15 for a big win, but Cruz noted that polls there have Trump ahead by double digits.
In addition to winning Texas, Cruz would dearly love to score wins in one or more of the other 11 Super Tuesday states, and, after appearances Friday in Tennessee and Virginia, he will be campaigning in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma over the weekend before returning to Texas for rallies Monday in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.