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The Democratic Party Once Feared Marco Rubio. Then The Campaign Happened.

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 16/03/2016 Sam Stein

In mid-December, well before any votes were cast, David Brock, the mercurial henchman for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, made an odd pronouncement about his plans for a general election. His group, Correct the Record, was not going to pour resources into investigating Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), choosing instead to focus on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and preparing -- as one does for the apocalypse -- for Donald Trump.

Eyebrows were raised. Rubio, after all, was running a solid, if unspectacular, campaign. More than that, there was history. The Republican Party flirts with insurgents and settles on the establishment choice. And Rubio, if nothing else, was the belle of the establishment.

“I just don’t see it,” an unpersuaded Brock said of Rubio .

Neither, apparently, did Republican voters.

On Tuesday night, Rubio lost the primary in his home state of Florida to Trump. And he lost it badly. His campaign for the presidency is now over. So, too, is his time in the Senate (where he is not running for re-election) and the notion of him as "The Republican Savior" (a christening given to him by Time magazine).

"I have long thought the false idea of Rubio's plausibility only served to keep party elites and donors and some in the press from looking at the reality of what was happening -- Trump and Cruz -- and jumping out the window," Brock said in an email. Asked if he ever considered Rubio a threat, he replied, "No. Only in theory because of Florida [his home state and one he could have theoretically won in an election] was he ever a possible problem."

I have long thought the false idea of Rubio's plausibility only served to keep party elites and donors and some in the press from looking at the reality of what was happening - Trump and Cruz - and jumping out the window. Clinton surrogate, David Brock

For all his prescience, Brock was virtually alone in dismissing the threat of Rubio. Indeed, the vast majority of Democrats once viewed the Florida senator as the most formidable GOP general election candidate. He was sharp, quick on his feet, and telegenic. He had a biographical appeal to Hispanic voters and a generational appeal to the younger and disaffected ones.

"He was the Republican candidate with the best capacity on paper to make a future versus past argument versus Clinton," explained Dan Pfeiffer, the former communications director for President Barack Obama.

As the Republican electorate kept Rubio at arm's length, never favoring him in the public opinion polls, never quite boosting him in any individual state, Democrats began to express a sense of downright bewilderment.

'You idiots! Don’t you realize Democrats are a hundred times more scared of Rubio than any of these other guys?' they would have screamed out (as Matt Yglesias posited), were they not so petrified that Republicans would listen.

Under the radar, Democrats prepared. According to multiple Democratic sources, groups outside of Brock's Correct the Record put together thorough opposition research books on Rubio, focusing most of the last year trying to dig up dirt on old business dealings. Party officials began crafting lines of attack for a general election campaign. Campaign officials and allied Democrats said they saw Rubio's "strange ideological changes" and his record on abortion as chief vulnerabilities. His hawkish foreign policy was seen as a liability, though less so against Clinton, since they shared some key positions.

But Rubio never caught on the way that Democrats feared he would. And as actual voting began, he made a series of strategic choices that left the petrified wondering if they'd been overanxious all along. First was a seeming reluctance by Rubio to actually campaign. His aides touted the light footprint he had in early states, while the senator spent more time courting Fox News viewers than eating potluck dinners with voters.  

The inability of the campaign to settle on an early state Rubio would actually win suggested that they he didn't have a well thought out game plan. But a strong showing in Iowa, where he finished a close third to Trump, made momentary believers.

Then came the debate in New Hampshire.

It's unfair, and certainly inaccurate, to say that Rubio's candidacy ended the moment New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scolded him for being robotic, and Rubio responded with more canned lines. He was on a problematic, if not uncertain, path well before then. But it is true that in those anguished debate minutes, Democrats stopped viewing Rubio as the candidate to fear.

 "I feared [John] Kasich and Rubio at the beginning of this cycle, when Rubio was unscathed," said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and Democratic National Committee chair. "That was formidable. But I think Rubio has been so diminished, not just by Trump, but by the debate as well."

 In the end, Rubio was a checklist candidate -- the type of politician a party would build in a lab, not someone molded by the crucible of a campaign. "He was Kwame Brown basically," said Pfeiffer, referencing one of the great NBA draft busts of all time. "Great on paper, but didn't have the skills to play the game on this level."

Nothing that Rubio did in the closing days of his campaign -- certainly not the schoolyard taunts he launched at Trump -- disabused Democrats of that notion. If anything, it made them question further why they were so frightened to begin with.

"The campaign exposed real flaws in him as a candidate that would have held true in a general election," said a Clinton campaign official. "They essentially ran a campaign based on attrition, waiting out others, as opposed to giving people an affirmative reason to be for him."

Even in the closing weeks, when the alternatives to Rubio dwindled to a bombastic billionaire, the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate, and a governor known for his rhetorical rambling, top Democrats didn't seem to be sweating the Floridian. Perhaps it was the luxury of knowing that he stood little chance of winning. Perhaps it was collective fright over the rise of Trump. But, if anything, Rubio seemed to be a distant third on the list of those candidates the party didn't want to run against.

"If the question is whether or not Marco Rubio is a more difficult candidate to run against than Ted Cruz," said Guy Cecil, chief strategist for Priorities USA, "than the answer is yes. But that's setting the bar a little low."

And so, when Rubio exited the campaign on Tuesday night, there was no sigh of relief from the other party. If anything, there was a bit of ill-timed mockery, a spattering of sympathy, and a collective shrug.

"If you had asked me eight months ago if I would be excited to hear Marco Rubio was getting out of the race, I would have said 'bullet dodged,'" said Pfeiffer. "Now, it doesn't matter."

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