Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign received a significant boost with the endorsements of two popular South Carolina Republicans, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy, but recent shots at his rivals could create some awkward moments on the stump.
In framing himself as the national security candidate, Rubio has been directing not-so-veiled jabs at his main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, for supporting the USA Freedom Act, which limits bulk government collection of Americans’ phone records.
One small hitch might make things uncomfortable when they appear together: Scott and Gowdy not only voted for the law, but also the latter co-sponsored it.
Gaining Scott and Gowdy’s backing is likely to give Rubio an edge with the conservative base in the early-voting state of South Carolina, whose primary Feb. 20 has the potential to significantly influence what happens in the Republican race.
Rubio’s “super” political action committees have wasted no time getting the endorsements in front of voters. Gowdy is featured prominently in several 30-second ads focusing on Rubio’s national security credentials.
In a January ad released in South Carolina, Gowdy says: “Our Founding Fathers gave us a president and a commander in chief because they understood that national security and public safety are the foundations of a free people, and there is nobody better on those two issues than Marco Rubio.”
Gowdy has built his reputation on being tough on national security issues, and that is how he framed his endorsement. While it makes for good sound bites for the campaign, it might set up uncomfortable moments if Rubio chooses to continue targeting Cruz for the same thing that Gowdy, Scott and most of his other backers in Congress supported.
Of Rubio’s 32 congressional endorsements, only four voted against the USA Freedom Act.
Leading up to the Iowa caucus, Rubio contended that Cruz had weakened the country’s national security and had voted for legislation – the USA Freedom Act – that he said even the Islamic State would have supported.
“If ISIS had lobbyists in Washington, they would have spent millions to support the anti-intelligence law that was just passed with the help of some Republicans now running for president,” Rubio said at a town hall in New Hampshire just a few days after Gowdy, one of that same law’s House of Representatives co-sponsors, endorsed him.
Gowdy said the law was “critical to ending the unacceptable status quo and better protects Americans’ civil liberties” when he voted for it last summer.
Another co-sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had endorsed Rubio a month earlier.
Rubio even hinted that Cruz’s support of the bill was hampering law enforcement’s investigation into the shootings in San Bernardino, California.
“Cruz voted to weaken America’s ability to identify and hunt down terrorists,” said the voice-over in a Rubio super PAC ad that aired in Des Moines.
Well I’ll tell you, Tim Scott, Trey Gowdy and I, we all voted the exact same way on the USA Freedom Act. So when Marco Rubio’s super PAC alleges that voting for it makes you responsible for the terror attack in Paris, it’s a ludicrous allegation.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas
Cruz responded to the ad by aligning himself with Sen. Scott, who had not yet endorsed Rubio.
“It blames conservatives, such as me, such as Sen. Tim Scott, who voted for the USA Freedom Act along with me. . . . This attack ad claims that somehow all of these conservatives are responsible for the Paris terrorist attack. That’s just nonsense,” Cruz said at the time.
And when Cruz took the stage with Gowdy and Scott for a December town hall at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, he took full advantage of pointing out the contradiction.
He circled back to Gowdy and Scott several times, using their positions in his defense. He reiterated that “the three of us and strong conservatives in both the House and Senate came together to support” the USA Freedom Act.
“All three of us agreed on that legislation. All of three of us supported that legislation,” he said, with Gowdy and Scott onstage with him.
If, God forbid, there’s an attack tomorrow morning in another major U.S. city, the first question everyone is going to have is: Why didn’t we know about them, and how come we didn’t stop it? And the answer better not be: Because a tool we once had that could have allowed us to identify them is no longer available to us.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Scott’s and Gowdy’s campaign aides could not be reached for comment for this story.
Going forward in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Rubio may think twice about hitting Cruz for supporting the national security legislation and may find a different angle on which to attack the Texas senator, said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University.
“I guess they’re just going to avoid that particular issue,” she said.
“What is happening here, most people aren’t going to be looking at the voting records of people giving endorsements. Gowdy looks tough on security issues, and if he says Rubio is tough, too, people will believe him,” she said.
Gowdy and Scott will travel to New Hampshire on Friday to stump for Rubio.