Just a few days into the New Year — but only 28 from the first nominating contest — the campaigns of Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio picked up right where they last left off: Sparring over national security.
Rubio issued the opening volley Monday with a sharp speech in New Hampshire that knocked "isolationist candidates more passionate about weakening our intelligence capabilities than about destroying our enemies," calling out Cruz in spirit if not in name.
But a pro-Cruz super PAC ratcheted up the long-simmering feud with the launch of an ad Monday that frames Rubio as an unserious dilettante on foreign policy more focused on fantasy football. Running for two weeks in Iowa on a $750,000 buy, it opens with scenes that hit on the unrest in the Middle East and the Syrian refugee crisis.
The ad closes with a clip cut from a good-humored video produced by Rubio's own campaign that shows him smiling, picking his fantasy football draft.
"Yeah, I know I have a debate," he says to someone on the phone. "But I've got to get this fantasy football thing right. Okay?"
On-screen text declares: "Tell Marco Rubio: America can't afford to gamble with its safety."
It's the group's first television ad of the cycle, and other Keep the Promise groups will spend another quarter million dollars to promote it on radio and digital avenues as well.
Kellyanne Conway, president of Keep the Promise I, said the country needs a "serious, thoughtful leader they can trust," not one who's joined with Democrats to support "amnesty."
"The nonsense of which candidate would you rather have a beer with or have in your Fantasy Football League has been replaced with a single, sober question: Who can you trust to keep Americans safe, stop terrorists, destroy ISIS and restore our standing in the world?" she added.
It's aimed at undercutting one of Rubio's main claims on the campaign trail, and one he repeated during his speech in New Hampshire Monday morning: That he is the only candidate "with a record of leadership and judgment."
But Rubio's campaign hit back on Twitter, suggesting the ad was hypocritical and the charge baseless by pointing to a number of Cruz's more lighthearted moments in the press.
""Wonder which Cruz-Simpson character @tedcruz pac thinks is best prepared to lead the country?" Rubio Rapid Response Director Joe Pounder tweeted, with a link to a BuzzFeed video of Cruz doing Simpsons impressions.
The back-and-forth is an early indication of the fierce battle that's sure to play out between the two candidates in the final sprint to Election Day in the early nominating states. Cruz and Rubio are seen as locked on a collision course for the nomination, Cruz picking up conservatives while Rubio works to shore up establishment support.
Their months-long feud began over immigration reform but has crystallized over foreign policy as the terrorist attacks across the globe in December focused the country's attention on national security.
While the two disagree on substance — Cruz takes a more cautious approach to US intervention abroad than Rubio, who advocates the overthrow of hostile dictators in the Middle East — the new Cruz super PAC ad suggests the debate could also morph into one of style, over which candidate can be better trusted to handle the security challenges confronting the nation.