Rubio Under Fire From All Sides
What do Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and the Democratic National Committee have in common?
They all hope to take down Marco Rubio.
As the first-term Florida senator rises in national and early state polls— emerging from standout debate performances as a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination—so, too, does scrutiny of the promising young candidate.
While Rubio is working to capitalize on his momentum, introduce himself on a national stage, and convince GOP voters he can successfully take on Hillary Clinton, both Republicans and Democrats hope to find his Achilles' heel.
Critics are combing through past controversies involving his personal finances, his use of a state GOP charge card, his Senate attendance record, and his changing stances on immigration reform, among others. Rubio is under fire from all sides.
The junior senator has run a cautious campaign since launching in April, keenly aware of the perils of peaking too soon. But now, with the dynamics shifting three months out from the Iowa caucuses, Rubio is seizing the spotlight as his GOP rivals and the Clinton campaign watch to see whether he will wither under it.
Rubio is in a position most other candidates would envy—attacks from both sides tend to signal you’re doing something right. But of course, it also leaves him vulnerable. The next few months will be the toughest test yet. And if he passes, his case for the presidency may be all the more compelling to the GOP.
Donald Trump has taken notice. With Jeb Bush lagging in the polls, Trump has re-aimed his arrows at Rubio, raising questions about his financial management abilities. In New Hampshire Wednesday, Trump called Rubio “a disaster” with personal finances. During a press conference in New York on Tuesday, Trump said Rubio “certainly lives above his means; there’s no question about that."
The senator’s financial history has come under a microscope over the past several days—in particular, a years-old controversy surrounding his use of a state party charge card. Accusations that he used Florida GOP dollars for personal expenses—charging family vacations and making home repairs—emerged during his 2010 Senate race against Charlie Crist, but ultimately fell flat.
Asked about it on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, Rubio said the GOP card was attached to his own credit line. He said he’d review the statements each month and pay his share for personal expenses and the party would pay its share. Rubio said that in hindsight he would have done things differently to avoid confusion.
Rubio also said he would release never-before-seen bank statements “soon.”
During the GOP debate last week, Rubio was asked about his finances, including his need to cash in his retirement account early and the fact he faced foreclosure on a second home he co-owned with a friend. The point of the question: would be able to lead a $17 trillion economy?
Rubio deflected the question and similar ones days after the debate by turning the problem into a selling point. “I didn’t inherit any money,” he told CNBC moderator Becky Quick, noting he had to take out loans to go to school. “I know what it's like to owe that money, and we’ve worked hard to provide a better life for our family.”
Susan MacManus, a political analyst and a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says Rubio’s financial scrapes could in fact resonate with voters. “Most people have trouble with credit cards,” MacManus said, noting that opponents who slam Rubio for his financial struggles while trying to appeal to the middle class could find it a risky strategy.
However, “it could be sustained if a whole array of them really get after it and it’s coming from candidates other than Trump,” she added.
Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican strategist, said the issue “just shows how desperate Trump is to get under Marco’s skin.” Wilson dismissed the credit card and financial issues, noting that if Crist, Rubio’s 2010 opponent, couldn’t find any charges that would stick, his current rivals won’t either.
Still, Trump isn’t likely to let up on the criticism. He has shown a knack for finding his opponents’ sore points and then pressing hard. Trump’s own financial and business dealings have come under fire, which could blunt the attacks. But he isn’t stopping there.
The real estate mogul has started to go after one of Rubio’s chief liabilities among conservative voters in the presidential primary: his stance on immigration.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted a link to a Breitbart article criticizing Rubio’s reluctance to immediately repeal President Obama’s 2012 executive order to defer the deportation of the children of undocumented immigrants (commonly referred to as DACA).
“Rubio would keep Barack Obama’s executive order on amnesty intact. See article. Cannot be President,” tweeted Trump, who has advocated deporting all undocumented immigrants.
In an interview with Jorge Ramos, the source of the Breitbart criticism, Rubio said Obama’s executive order would have to “end at some point,” and he hoped it could be done through reforms to the immigration laws.
Rubio has said before that DACA cannot be the law of the land and that it should end, but not immediately, because it involves children and families. While he has been unclear about how exactly he would cancel the deferred deportation program (which is temporary because deportation reprieves were created by the administration under its policy discretion), Rubio has advocated ending it by changing current laws that offer protections for children.
But when questioned on the subject Wednesday during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Rubio said he believes DACA should end with or without immigration reform. This came after he told "Good Morning America" that Congress could not pass a comprehensive immigration bill.
The campaign says Rubio’s comments Wednesday are consistent with previous ones. But some pro-immigration reform advocates took issue.
In a statement, Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, described Rubio’s call for ending the program, even if reforms to the original law cannot be made, as a new and “cruel” position.
“This is just another example of the Trump Effect, where GOP presidential candidates respond to Donald Trump’s attacks on immigration by tacking hard right,” Tramonte said. “Some have attempted to give Rubio the benefit of the doubt on immigration, but after his latest ‘clarification,’ there’s no more room for pretending.”
Hillary Clinton also pounced, tweeting: “We should not put 650,000+ promising young people at risk for deportation. Sen. Rubio is wrong on this.”
Democratic National Committee spokesman Eric Walker said Rubio’s DACA comments illustrate his inconsistencies. “Marco Rubio is about as trustworthy on immigration reform as he is on his tax plan and his personal finances,” he said.
Rubio was a key architect of the bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. But the legislation, which included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, became a GOP lightening rod: The House refused to take it up and conservatives labeled it “amnesty.” Rubio later backed away from the bill, arguing against passing reform legislation in one comprehensive package. He has since advocated a piecemeal approach, starting with reforms to border security.
Rubio’s involvement with reform legislation was originally thought to be a savvy political move as the GOP establishment, suffering a devastating loss of the Latino vote in 2012, tried to become more inclusive. But resistance to the bill proved otherwise. And now, as Trump has gained traction with anti-immigration reform and pro-deportation views, the opposition is even more pronounced, putting Rubio in a potentially sticky spot.
And his rivals aren’t helping. In addition to Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also attacked Rubio over DACA, saying, “It’s hard to keep up with how many times Marco changes his positions on these things, to tell you the truth,” he told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, a staunch opponent of immigration reform. “If the president’s executive orders are illegal, which I believe they are, then they need to be revoked the first day you get into office.”
Christie is lagging in national polls and may not make the next prime-time debate stage despite a well-received performance last week. Christie is actively competing in New Hampshire, where he has risen in the polls. But Rubio has made significant gains there. The RealClearPolitics polling average now shows him in third place.
Meanwhile, Bush is not letting up on Rubio’s Senate absences or his relative inexperience. In a campaign reboot speech on Monday, he said the country can’t “roll the dice on another experiment” and that presidential leadership can’t come from Congress. Bush's campaign has called Rubio "a risky bet."
Still, Rubio appears undaunted. “I'm running for president. It’s a big office. It’s an important position, the most important political office on the planet. And we knew it would be difficult,” Rubio told "Good Morning America."
And when it comes to Trump, Rubio claims he has his rival figured out. He “always gets weird when his poll numbers get a little down and goes off a little bit,” Rubio told Fox News. “I guess that's what's happening.”