Does Rubio have to quit for GOP to beat Trump?

Sen. Marco Rubio's fall to last place in the Republican field means the GOP needs another strategy to beat its billionaire front-runner.

Paul Sancya/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida greets patrons at the Melao Bakery in Kissimmee, Fla. Senator Rubio has said he's sticking around must-win Florida ahead of the state's Republican primary on March 15.

The Republican establishment – that vague group of lawmakers, lobbyists, donors, and thinkfluencers atop the national party – believed in Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, once. Only a few weeks ago, they thought the young Floridian was their best chance to block Donald Trump and defeat the Democrats in the fall.

Actual GOP voters did not agree. Senator Rubio never had a base of core supporters, points out FiveThirtyEight poll data guru Nate Silver. He was everybody’s second choice (at best). Now he’s dropped to last in the Republican field and is facing a possible humiliating loss on March 15 in his home state.

Having won only 9.3 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Michigan primary, and 5 percent in Mississippi, the Florida senator has reached a turning point. Perhaps it’s time for him to drop out of the race.

“Pressure on Rubio to pull out will grow exponentially. Two very poor finishes,” tweeted Forbes chairman Steve Forbes, himself a failed Republican presidential candidate, after the devastating results rolled in.

Call it the John Connally problem. Mr. Connally was a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican who for a time seemed the GOP’s best hope to take back the White House following the Watergate scandal.

Connally was a dynamic speaker who looked like a president. He’d been secretary of the Navy under John F. Kennedy. As governor of Texas, he was riding in the limousine when JFK was shot. He’d served as secretary of the Treasury under Richard Nixon. He had ample campaign money. Heading into the 1980 campaign, he looked like a strong competitor.

But “looked” is the important word there. Real voters did not get the message. Connally ran into an insurgent force in the person of Ronald Reagan, and he spent $11 million in 1979 dollars to win just one delegate. Connally’s name became synonymous with political underperformance.

Rubio’s name might join him in that dubious pantheon. It is true that a week is a long time in politics, but what will change to allow Rubio to rebound in the Sunshine State? At the moment, he’s 17 points behind Mr. Trump in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major Florida polls.

A barrage of anti-Trump ads might help. Independent super PACs opposed to the real estate billionaire are planning some $10 million in TV spending in Florida in coming days. That’s a lot of money. Rubio’s own campaign will probably empty its wallet as well.

But that effort could help Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas as much as Rubio. Senator Cruz is creeping up behind Rubio in Florida polls. The Texan’s stronger performance on Tuesday could convince anti-Trump Floridians that he, not Rubio, is their best hope.

So what if Rubio dropped out – and then joined Cruz as VP on a ticket? That’s conservative commentator Erick Erickson’s scenario for defeating Trump. Rubio will have no political future if he persists with a presidential run, since he’ll essentially be playing the role of spoiler and guaranteeing a Trump win, according to Mr. Erickson. Better to accept a lesser role to unite anti-Trump forces.

“It can be done. It is possible. But the Marco Rubio supporters have to dare to believe and be willing to set aside grievances with Cruz to win,” writes Erickson on Wednesday.

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