The future of the Republican presidential race could well be decided in New Hampshire.
Despite his humiliating loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Donald Trump is still polling well in the Granite State. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio's third place showing in Iowa indicates it might, finally, be Rubio's time.
There are basically two scenarios in New Hampshire: 1. Marco Rubio does really well, and other establishment candidates — like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — don't; or 2. a bunch of candidates get essentially the same score and there's no clear runner-up after Trump.
Marco Rubio wants to avoid scenario two at all costs. Luckily, he's in a position to do it.
Just as many Republican voters in Iowa probably turned out to defeat Trump, many New Hampshire voters are looking for someone who can beat The Donald. Rubio has been anticipating this. While he began his campaign with an inspiring vision of a "New American Century," one backed up by an innovative policy vision, in the last hectic days of the Iowa campaign, Rubio tailored his pitch more narrowly: Elect me because I can "unite the Party" (he's the only candidate who's acceptable to both moderates and conservatives) and because I can "beat Hillary Clinton." It's less high-minded, but it might be true. It also seems to work.
But there's another way Rubio can position himself as the clear alternative to Trump: by socking him in the jaw. The tradition in politics is that while candidates appear in positive commercials, attack ads use voice-over actors and don't feature the candidate who puts them out, so as not to tarnish their image. In the case of Trump, that doesn't work, because Trump is all about macho. You can't trip him up. You have to walk up to him, introduce yourself, and punch him in the face.
And punch him where it hurts. Don't say that he's not a real conservative. Don't say that he likes big government. Don't say that he's crass. Don't say that he's offensive. His audience doesn't care about that. Rubio should say that Trump is a con-artist.
Imagine the following ad. Marco Rubio is standing in a street in Manchester, New Hampshire, in a fleece jacket. He walks forward as the camera moves back, and says:
You wanna know my problem with Donald Trump? It's not that he's angry — I'm angry. It's not that he's politically incorrect — I kinda like that. It's not that he's a billionaire, or that he's not an elected politician — whatever. It's that he's a fraud. This is a guy who inherited $40 million from his father and presents himself as a self-made man. This is a guy who used government to kick a widow out of her house to build a limousine parking lot. This is a guy who's dealing with multiple lawsuits about him opening an online university that made $40 million fleecing people out of tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for no degrees. This is a guy whose multiple corporate bankruptcies no doubt left thousands of everyday Americans without jobs, but left him rich. And this is a guy who says he doesn't have to ask God for forgiveness — for anything. And you want me to believe he cares about everyday people, that he cares about the issues he talks about — that I care about? That he cares about people who live paycheck to paycheck, like my parents, like I grew up? I'm not buying it. I'm angry too, and I'm running because I want to fight every day for hard-working Americans who have been screwed by our incompetent government — and by rich, pathetic con artists like Trump. I'm Marco Rubio, and you better believe I approve this message.
(While he's at it, he can copy-paste this Cruz ad and slap his name on it.)
This ad is a one-two punch. It tells Trump voters they should vote for Rubio, or at least think twice before turning out for Trump. At the same time, it says to anti-Trump voters that he's their guy. And it's guaranteed that ad would get a lot of free air play.
Of course, that ad can go with Rubio's latest ad, which stressed his electability. It's essentially the same message: I'm the guy who can beat Trump and Cruz and win in November.
And finally, Rubio should consider standing out from the rest of the crowded non-Trump, non-Cruz field, not just with his resume and with the same platitudes about God and country every other Republican candidate has, but also with the specific policy proposals he has — especially since they're tailor-made for the New Hampshire audience. He should talk about his child tax credit, which would make life easier for families, even those that work but don't pay the income tax. He should talk about his wage subsidy plan, which will bring jobs back from China without starting a trade war that would make the shopping bill 40 percent higher. He should talk about ending the higher education accreditation cartel, and expanding competency-based learning, which will enable working Americans to earn a degree to climb the ladder of opportunity, without spending a lot and without straining their families. These are all good ideas that are specific, workable solutions to the real problems that Trumpmania has highlighted. It would also address the problem that too many voters see Rubio as a lightweight.
All of these together indicate that Rubio is not only the guy to beat Trump, but win the general election. Time for more Rubio-mania?