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Rubio is finally taking the fight to Trump. Is it too late?

Senator Marco Rubio is throwing everything he can at front-runner Donald Trump, but his supporters worry it may be too late.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign event at the InterContinental Hotel, Feb. 29, 2016, in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign event at the InterContinental Hotel, Feb. 29, 2016, in Atlanta, Ga.

PURCELLVILLE, Virginia – What’s wrong with Donald Trump? Let the newly emboldened Marco Rubio explain it to you.

Trump, Rubio said on Sunday, has a spray tan, lousy hair and “small hands” (wink wink). But more importantly, Trump is a “con artist” who preys on the gullible and “friends do not let friends vote for con artists.” As evidence, the Florida senator pointed to Trump University, the defunct non-accredited program whose alumni are now suing, claiming they received little more than a graduation photo with a Trump cutout while racking up large debts to pay for it.  

“What he did to them is what he’s doing to voters now,” Rubio told an eager crowd of thousands at Patrick Henry College.

Rubio has never looked better since last Thursday’s raucous Republican debate, where he finally confronted Trump after weeks avoiding a showdown. He sounds less canned, more confident and, at times, genuinely funny. His crowds are much bigger and far more fired up than the Iowa and New Hampshire audiences that were still struggling to decide between a dozen candidates. Now more have settled on Rubio as their champion and Trump panic has created a powerful demand for candidates who will stand up to him before he takes the nomination.

RELATED: A Republican Party on the brink of coming apart

That doesn’t mean Rubio is winning, though. The limited polling available on Virginia, an important target for Rubio where he made four stops in on Sunday, show Trump with a double-digit lead. Trump also looks strong in Super Tuesday states in general, from Massachusetts to Alabama, with only Sen. Ted Cruz’s native Texas leaning away from him in recent surveys.

But Rubio is finally putting up a fight and his supporters couldn’t be happier.

At the first of his rallies on Sunday, he used the “con artist” theme to tie together a host of related attacks: Trump talks tough on illegal immigration, but he used undocumented Polish workers to build Trump Tower. Trump talks tough on wages, but he applied to hire hundreds of foreign workers at his hotel when Americans wanted the job. Trump talks tough on trade, but makes “those tacky ties” in China and Mexico.

Those riffs laid the groundwork for some improvised one-liners later when a protester waved a “MARCO RUBIO: EMPTY SUIT” sign.

“My suit wasn’t made in China — it’s not a Trump suit!” Rubio said as audience members grabbed at the sign.

“Ladies and gentleman, the valedictorian of Trump University!” he followed up as the person was removed. It was a pivot from portraying Trump U. “students” as sad victims to portraying them as dumb rubes, but the audience loved it.

Then the senator turned to the big news of the morning: Trump’s refusal to disavow support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in a live CNN interview, the latest in a long line of nods, winks, and high fives to extremism.  

“We cannot be a party that nominates someone who refused to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan,” Rubio said. “Not only is that wrong, it makes him unelectable.”

RELATED: Donald Trump’s history of talking about David Duke and white supremacists

“Never Trump!” one man called out. It was a reference to the #NeverTrump hashtag, which Republicans use to pledge never to support the front-runner under any circumstances. The movement gained its most high-profile member on Sunday night in freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), a rising GOP star.

The crowd of thousands booed at Trump’s name and exploded every time Rubio stuck the landing on his Trump lines. This is what they had all been hoping to see. They just wished it came sooner.

“I'm glad he's doing it, but I worry it's too late,” Scott Tyskowski, 39, said as he waited for the event with his wife and two boys. “I wish he started a month ago. Jeb is the only one who did go after him, and he wasn't strong enough to sustain it.”

"I think it was just way too many candidates attacking each other before Trump and now it's too late," said Mike Kober, a proud 31-year old Rubio supporter who drove in from West Virginia with his Cuban-born grandmother. “I don’t know if it makes a difference, but I like it.”

Part of the problem is that by waiting so long to go after the front-runner, Rubio now has so many pent-up Trump attacks that it’s hard to give any one enough attention to break through. Super Tuesday is one day away and March 15, which includes crucial winner-take-all Ohio and Rubio’s must-win home state of Florida, is right around the corner. 

In his Purcellville speech alone, Rubio went after Trump as “unelectable,” Trump as a bully (“He wants to make it easier to sue people who say mean things about him”), Trump as a liberal (He “stands for many of the things Democrats stand for”), Trump as a phony success (He “inherited $200 million”), Trump as an authoritarian (“big fan of Vladimir Putin”), and finally Trump as an unqualified lunatic who “wants access to the nuclear codes of America.”

Later in the day he added Trump as a weakling (“not a tough guy”) and Trump as a Vietnam draft dodger (“He didn’t serve ... he got injuries from playing squash.”)

Rubio has also been trotting out a new strategy of insulting Trump’s appearance, something Trump does frequently to Rubio. On Friday, Rubio suggested Trump peed himself at the last debate. On Sunday, he continued his urological exam by rebutting Trump’s “little Rubio” nickname with a shot at Trump’s tiny hands and tiny … wherever.

“You know what they say about men with small hands?” Rubio said, pausing to let the joke sink in. “You can’t trust them.” 

And that’s all just Rubio. Ted Cruz is also leveling his own assault on Trump as an unreformed pro-choice liberal who could be hiding “bombshell” Mafia ties in his unreleased tax returns.

In another universe, Trump’s rivals might have carefully doled out each of these angles month by month: September would be all about introducing voters to Trump University and his foreign workers, October would be about his Democratic donations, November about his small hands and bad tan. Now there’s a cacophony of anti-Trump noise just as voters are trying to find a signal to guide their vote.

Rubio and his allies believe they can overcome Trump, perhaps at a divided convention, if they just hang in and let the field to shrink. The problem is that it’s the same strategy Cruz is pursuing, and the same one that even Ohio Gov. John Kasich is counting on. Rubio’s claim to Last Best Hope is so far not compelling to either of them. If Cruz wins Texas on Tuesday while Rubio turns in another string of second and third place finishes in addition to trailing in polls of Florida, there’s not a lot to motivate him to leave.

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Cruz supporter who shadowed Rubio at his Purcellville event, raised another issue: There’s no guarantee that Rubio will pick up Cruz’s support if he gets things down to a two-man race. After all, Cruz spent months and months sucking up to Trump and courting his supporters prior to turning on him before Iowa.

"If Rubio were to have his wish and Cruz retired tomorrow, a very large portion — if not more than half — of Cruz’s support goes to Trump and not to Rubio,” Cuccinelli said. “If Rubio gets out tomorrow, most of his support goes to Cruz. If he's as serious as he says he is about the threat of Donald Trump, the thing he can do to prove it is to get out of the race.”

The lines are blurrier than many often assume. One voter at the Rubio rally told MSNBC that he was having a tough time deciding between Rubio and Trump, whom he thought would be more generous with government aid and would help stem losses his small printing business had sustained to overseas competition. He even was considering voting for Bernie Sanders on the same grounds. 

Some recent surveys have shown Trump leading even in a two-man race against Cruz, including an Economist/YouGov poll that put him at 57 percent support to Rubio’s 43 percent. A shock CNN poll on Monday put Trump’s national support at 49% in the current five-person field, significantly higher than other surveys that nonetheless put him well ahead of the completion.

Republicans need to do more than just depress Trump’s support — they need to engineer a complete and total collapse over the next few weeks. The anti-Trump forces can’t wait to help Rubio and Cruz try and pull it off. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. We’ll never know what would have happened if they had started sooner.