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Rubio found his groove. But is it too late?

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at a

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at a rally in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. Credit: AP

If you thought Marco Rubio was good at Thursday night’s debate in Houston, you should have seen him on Friday in Dallas.

The target was Donald Trump, and Rubio lit into him like a tailgunner on a tethered zeppelin.

The Florida senator excoriated the New York confidence man from top to bottom, literally, before an outdoor crowd of several thousand, and he clearly had fun doing it. The audience loved it, too. They roared back approval.

Rubio’s punchline was that Trump’s a con artist — “it’s time to take his mask off” — which is as obvious to those of us who see it as Chris Christie’s temper is to New Jersey boardwalk strollers. And oh the fun Rubio had painting the picture.

Rubio lit up the crowd by reading some of the demeaning tweets Trump leveled at him after the debate. They will filled with second-grade spelling errors, which Rubio masterfully ridiculed. He said there were only two possible explanations for Trump’s misspellings; either the Wharton School of Business, Trump’s alma mater, doesn’t know how to spell, or Trump has hired foreign workers to write his tweets, just like he hired foreign workers at Trump Towers.

Badabing!

Rubio used a Trump tweet calling Rubio “a meltdown artist” as the hook for a hilarious bit about Trump backstage during a break in the debate. It was the kind of peek behind the curtain everyone wants to hear about.

“Last night during the debate, at one of the breaks — two of the breaks — he went backstage, and let me tell you, he was having a meltdown,” Rubio said, clearly enjoying the moment. “First, he had this makeup thing applying, makeup around his mustache because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then, he asked for a full-length mirror. I don’t know why because the podium goes up to here (hand gesture showing chest level). I don’t know why, but he wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet, I don’t know.”

Eruption of laughter from the audience.

Rubio was free to poke Trump in ways candidates rarely can get away with, because he was lambasting the bully, and people make exceptions for that. Someone was finally standing up to the neighborhood tough and getting the better of him, and the audience was elated by it.

Rubio blasted Trump for cheating students out of money at Trump University, something being alleged at an upcoming trial. “What about those students who signed up for Trump University — a fake school,” he asked. “Some of them took out loans; they told them, go max your credit cards — $36,000. And at the end of the course all you got was a paper certificate and a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump.”

Baboom!

“Guys, we have a con artist as the front-runner in the Republican Party,” he continued. “A guy who has made a career out of telling people lies so that they come in and buy his product.

“Your ever hear of Donald Trump Vodka?,” he went on. “How about Trump Mattress or Trump Air or Trump Ice or Trump water? Those are all businesses that are gone because they were a disaster.”

New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat applauded Rubio for debate performance in his column Friday and rightly asked whether it’s too late for Rubio. It may very well be. But if it’s not, if there’s a glimmer of hope for another candidate to break through, it’s going to be Rubio with his energizing new stage show.

As Sun Tzu said in “The Art of War,” “if your enemy is a big, fat, arrogant meanie, stick it in his ear.”

Or was that someone else?

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.

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