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Rubio campaign manager: The GOP no longer has an 'ideological compass'

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Marco Rubio and Chris Christie during a GOP debate in 2016. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images, David Goldman/AP)

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party’s “ideological compass” is gone, said veteran GOP operative Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Sullivan, in an interview for “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, leveled his critique at both Republicans and Democrats, but said as a Republican he was more authorized to speak about that party’s drift. He blamed the deeper problem on a shift away from ideas-based campaigns.

“The campaigns are much more about personality than they are about issues,” Sullivan said. “Issues are only seen as a vehicle to determine somebody’s personality. … We see that with the current president.”

And Sullivan’s comments come on the heels of a surprising result in a Republican congressional primary in South Carolina, where Sullivan has worked in politics for much of his career. Rep. Mark Sanford lost last week to a primary challenger who faulted him for speaking out against President Trump, despite the fact that Sanford has voted with Trump 72 percent of the time.

But Sanford had criticized Trump’s “cult of personality,” and that ended up being more politically damaging to him than the 2009 scandal involving his extramarital affair when he was the governor of South Carolina.

Sullivan also talked with Yahoo News about the moments that led to Rubio’s damaging performance in a GOP presidential primary debate days before the New Hampshire primary in 2016.

Rubio had finished ahead of expectations in Iowa and was gaining a head of steam in the days leading up to the debate. He was primed to consolidate the mainstream wing of the Republican Party and take on Donald Trump with a strong performance in New Hampshire.

But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who would end his candidacy just a few days later, wanted to take Rubio down on his way out. He mocked Rubio for repeating the same talking points, to devastating effect. It reinforced the central critique of Rubio, then 44 years old, as too young and inexperienced to be president.

“He was a young guy who like, ‘Wait a minute, is he really ready for this? He seems way too out of central casting,’” Sullivan acknowledged. “It fit right in there. We walked into a punch.”

The Rubio campaign knew that Christie — who never took on Trump during the primary — was gunning for their candidate.

“Look at the guy, he’s undisciplined. He can’t control himself, and he was telegraphing his punches all week long what he was going to do, how he was going to go after [Rubio],” Sullivan said. “We’re getting calls from reporters: ‘Christie says this.’”

Sullivan blamed himself and other advisers for Rubio’s game plan going into the debate. “Marco got a little bit of bad advice beforehand, myself included,” Sullivan said.

“What our data showed was look — voters don’t want — the answer to Trump is don’t be a bully, don’t be a jerk, don’t attack other Republicans. Focus on Obama. That’s what a large majority of voters wanted,” Sullivan said. “And so the advice that Marco was given — and he’s his own guy and did his own thing — but the advice he was given by me and others was don’t take the bait on Chris Christie. In 72 hours he’s going to be the guy who used to run for president. He’s going back to Jersey. … So don’t engage him, don’t take the bait. Don’t punch down to a guy whose race is completely over.”

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But Sullivan also blamed the media for focusing on Rubio’s exchange with Christie to the point that it defined Rubio’s candidacy. “That night, Marco finished a clear second of people who were watching the debate. There were some great moments in there that really animated folks. There was an interaction about that Marco gave a great answer, a pro-life answer that the base got really wound up about, things like that,” Sullivan said.

Two weeks after the New Hampshire primary, and after he had exited the primary, Christie shocked the political world by endorsing Trump. He was the first major establishment member of the Republican Party to throw his support to Trump, which made it easier for others to do so as well.

In return for Christie’s support, Trump named him chair of his transition effort two months later. But after Trump won the fall election against Democrat Hillary Clinton, Christie was unceremoniously pushed aside and replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.

Rubio, meanwhile, changed his mind about not running for reelection and won a second term last fall as U.S. senator from Florida.

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