Rubio’s vulnerability

The Washington Post finds that Marco Rubio is taking little fire from his Republican rivals even as he moves up in the polls. It claims that “other candidates have not figured out how to deal with what some are calling ‘the Marco moment.’”

I disagree with the Post. Rubio has been attacked by both Donald Trump and Jeb Bush. The amount of flak seems commensurate with his standing in the polls — third place and barely into double digits. Ted Cruz, next in the polls, has taken considerably less fire from rival candidates.

As for how to take on Rubio, you don’t have to be Lee Atwater to figure that out. Immigration, immigration, immigration.

Rubio is lucky that Bush has been his main antagonist to date. Bush can’t hit Rubio on immigration because their positions have been similar. Thus, Bush focuses on Rubio’s inexperience — which many probably see as a virtue in a campaign that finds Trump and Ben Carson at the top of the polls — and his poor Senate attendance record — a legitimate criticism in my view, but hardly a deal-breaker.

Rubio is also lucky that in the debates thus far, the discussion of immigration has centered on Trump’s proposal (outlandish in my view) to deport 11 or 12 millions illegal immigrants and then readmit most of them. This has kept the spotlight off of the Schumer-Rubio amnesty/path to citizenship proposal.

If the race comes down to Rubio and Trump, the immigration issue may turn into a wash. Trump’s deportation program has helped him attain 30 percent support among Republicans. But it’s not clear that, at the end of the day, it will command majority support. So voters might conclude that neither candidate has immigration right, but that at least Rubio has learned his lesson and moved away from supporting amnesty and a path to citizenship.

But Ted Cruz is lurking with intent, as I like to say, and he is well-positioned to exploit Rubio’s weakness on immigration. Thus far, Cruz has wisely held his fire. But after Tuesday’s debate, his spokesman Rick Tyler said:

Senator Rubio was for the Gang of Eight. Senator Cruz wasn’t. Right now, we’re just beginning that, and we’ve got three months till Iowa.

I haven’t heard Rubio present a satisfactory explanation for his role in the Gang of Eights. He has said he hoped the House to improve the legislation. Passing a bad bill in the hope that others will fix it doesn’t sound like what a future president does.

Rubio has also said he feared that without his legislation, President Obama would accomplish immigration reform by executive order without including border security improvement and other worthwhile provisions. Obama has in fact attempted this.

But the Gang of Eight legislation would have done more for illegal immigrants — e.g. provide a path to citizenship — than Obama has attempted. And Obama’s actions have thus far been halted by the judiciary. Rubio’s legislation would have provided clear sailing for amnesty and a path to citizenship.

Unless he finds a better explanation, Rubio’s prospects will probably turn on what Scott calls the Trollopian question — “can you forgive him.” We might forgive Rubio if convinced that he clearly gives Republicans the best chance to win. Otherwise, probably not.

UPDATE: Cruz didn’t need three months to fire at Rubio on immigration. Game on.