After a campaign dominated for months by Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s various feuds, a new rivalry is taking center stage that may ultimately have a far bigger impact on the GOP race: Jeb Bush versus Marco Rubio. Rubio’s message, which has always emphasized his youth and novelty in American politics, is growing more pointed as the campaigns converge. And the sharp end of the rhetorical stick is clearly aimed at a certain unnamed candidate more than the others.
On Thursday night in Iowa, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hosted an unremarkable campaign event, which became interesting for non-traditional reasons. The action, it turns out, wasn't on the stage, but rather, was in the audience -- a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush sent a tracker to the Rubio event. The senator's aides noticed and kicked the tracker out.
It was a reminder that the rivalry between Bush and Rubio -- two former friends from their days in Florida's state capitol -- has taken a more confrontational turn. MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin had a terrific report on this over the weekend.
There's really no subtlety to the messaging. As Sarlin's report makes clear, when Rubio takes aim at a certain unnamed candidate, he's taking on Bush.
At first blush, the dynamic might seem odd: there are simmering tensions and an increasingly public feud brewing between the candidates running in fourth and fifth place. What about the presidential hopefuls in slots one through three? Shouldn't they be the principal targets since they're the ones who are winning?
Keep in mind, much of the political establishment -- inside the Republican Party and out -- is working from the assumption that the Amateur Trio of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are enjoying unsustainable support. There's no denying the backing these three enjoy in the polls, but not only have the Amateur Trio never served a day in public office, they've also never won an election at any level. Two of the three haven't even tried.
If the assumptions are correct, and the rookies will soon fade away, the GOP's 2016 nomination will then come down to a more traditional, more establishment candidate, ready to step up as the party's standard bearer. In the spring, Republicans assumed that mantle would almost eventually be claimed by Bush, Rubio, or Scott Walker.
The Wisconsin governor's campaign proved to be something of a disaster, leaving the Floridians, who are understandably trying to gradually tear down the other.
As it turns out, when Team Jeb makes its pitch to Republican insiders and donors, the message is pretty straightforward: Marco Rubio is a nice young man who's never done anything, run anything, or passed anything. Rubio may deliver a decent speech, but he's untested and unprepared. Worse, he's a career politician who's done little more than follow others' lead.
When Team Rubio makes its pitch to the same GOP insiders, the message is equally simple: Jeb Bush is a nice guy whose day has come and gone. He's part of an old guard that Americans no longer have any use for. Bush has no idea how to compete in a modern campaign -- the last time he was a candidate was 2002, before Facebook and Twitter even existed -- and there's simply no public appetite for George W. Bush's brother in the Oval Office.
Both of these pitches have something important in common: they're both entirely accurate. Neither Bush nor Rubio has to resort to personal attacks or ugly lies to undermine their rival; their messages already have the benefit of accuracy.
The choice then falls to Republicans who face an awkward challenge: nominate the untested follower who's in over his head, or rally behind the clumsy legacy candidate who comes across as yesterday's news.