Teflon Trump: GOP Wonders What Will Stick
When Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” in his rambling presidential announcement speech, it was obvious to many observers he wasn’t ready for national politics.
Ditto when he picked a fight with Fox News after Megyn Kelly asked him about coarse things he has said about women. Trump responded by saying coarse, sexist things about Kelly herself. Trump subsequently derided the 2008 Republican presidential nominee for being taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and sneered that the GOP’s 2012 nominee was “a fool.”
A bridge too far, many pundits assumed.
He mocked the physical disabilities of a New York Times reporter, vowed to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants (including those brought to America as children who speak no language other than English), and said he’d ban Muslims from coming here—including, presumably, U.S. citizens on vacation.
Disqualifying, some wise old political observers said.
During all 10 Republican primary debates, he repeatedly insulted his fellow candidates with schoolyard taunts, boasted incessantly about his wealth, and displayed little expertise about either domestic or foreign policy. Completely un-presidential, said seasoned party professionals.
The net result of all this was that Trump rose higher and higher in public opinion polls and began winning states and convention delegates: second in Iowa, first in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Can anything stop him?
Over the weekend, Trump committed yet another error by refusing to denounce former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Is this actually a bridge too far—or yet another example of how Trump exists in suspended animation unbound by the normal rules of elective politics?
The voters in 11 states, where 595 delegates will be awarded on the Republican side Tuesday night, could help answer that. If one weekend development had the potential to alter the dynamic of this campaign, perhaps it was Marco Rubio’s decision to meet Trump on his own level.
The Florida senator, whom Trump has now dubbed "Little Marco," started hammering the GOP front-runner during the debate Thursday night and hasn't stopped. Rubio labeled Trump "a con artist" and raised concerns about him holding the nation's nuclear launch codes. In addition to raising the issues of Trump's fraud charges, hiring of undocumented immigrants, and refusal to release his tax returns, Rubio has gone to a level he had admitted he didn't want to go. During campaign rallies over the weekend, Rubio made jokes about Trump's spray tan and small hands. “You know what they say about men with small hands," he said. “You can’t trust them."
Rubio's change in strategy has earned him sustained media attention over the past few days—networks aired parts of his events live—even as Trump tried to overpower him on Friday morning by rolling out an endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made no qualms about his distaste for Rubio.
Rubio "is speaking Trump's language and getting inside his head," says Katie Packer, a Republican strategist and former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney. "Marco is trying to beat Trump at his own game."
Indeed, Trump spent several minutes at a rally over the weekend having to explain the controversy over Trump University.
The effect may not be known for some time. With early voting already under way and his rival’s shift in approach still new, Trump still figures to clean up on Super Tuesday, leaving his challengers fighting for their political lives to pick off as many delegates as they can.
Even if the latest controversy over David Duke doesn't damage Trump in the eyes of the voters, the issue struck a nerve with Republicans engaged in a civil war over the party’s future.
“We saw and looked at true hate in the eyes last year in Charleston,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said while campaigning for Rubio in Georgia, according to the New York Times. “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the K.K.K. That is not a part of our party. That is not who we are.”
Earlier this month, Haley stood beside Sen. Tim Scott and Rubio as the team described itself as the new face of the conservative movement. Rubio's message and his presence as a young, Latino Republican with an American Dream is more in line with what party leaders might have envisioned, aiming for broader inclusivity after the presidential campaign loss in 2012. But it is Trump who has won three states, with more to come, even as he invites more controversy. And it's Trump who is taking credit for record turnouts in the primaries thus far.
Trump's Teflon-like campaign continues to perplex political observers and the candidates themselves. The latest incident was particularly irksome.
"This is the party of Abraham Lincoln. This is not the party of David Duke, Donald Trump," Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told MSNBC Monday night.
Sasse, a conservative freshman with no previous political experience, made news recently by saying he could not support Trump if he were to be his party's nominee for the presidency. In an interview with CNN on Monday, Sasse said he would write in a candidate before he voted for Trump or Hillary Clinton, and suggested "more candidates would enter the race" if those were the only choices come November.
Ted Cruz, whose entire campaign rests on Super Tuesday, also weighed in.
"This ought to be something that should be easy, that should bring all of us together. The Klan is repugnant," the Texas senator said on Hugh Hewitt's radio program. "Racism and bigotry has no place in our society, and I thought it was disappointing that Donald was unwilling to say that when he was asked about it."
Cruz, who is well positioned to win his home state of Texas, but not necessarily all of its delegates, is aiming to beat Trump in conservative Southern states, including Arkansas and Alabama, on Tuesday night. Trump's ability to do well in the South and among evangelicals is particularly troubling for Cruz, who has struggled to gain traction and attention this week. The sparring between Trump and Rubio has taken up most of the oxygen.
The senator hopes a home state win will put him ahead of Rubio, even if Trump sweeps the rest of the states. "We are the only campaign that has a shot at beating Donald Trump on Super Tuesday," Cruz told reporters in San Antonio on Monday. "You can't beat Donald Trump if you can't win your home state," he said, pointing to polls showing Rubio lagging behind Trump in Florida.
Both Cruz and Rubio have argued over recent days that polls show 60 percent of Republicans don't support Trump. But the remaining support is fractured and figures to be messy if any of the candidates leave the race.
A winnowing doesn't appear likely after Super Tuesday, with Cruz counting on momentum from Texas, and Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich awaiting their respective home state contests on March 15. And if they win their own states that day, both are planning to take the nominating contest to the convention.
While Trump's continued controversies don't seem to deter his supporters, they do seem to encourage his rivals to stay in the race to prevent him from getting the nomination.