Marco Rubio was already cruising to a breakout performance in the latest GOP presidential debate when an attack from Donald Trump opened up more air time for him to respond according to the evening’s format.
“Well, I’ve learned the rules on this,” the Florida senator said coolly — and proceeded to swat back the celebrity billionaire with ease on Trump’s signature issue.
If Wednesday’s debate was any indication, Rubio has learned not only the rules, but the playbook. And he has reached the point where he appears ready to execute it.
Rubio showed during the debate that he could take a hit, and swing back — something that might have been in doubt, given his youth and the roughness of this election cycle. Until this point in the campaign, he has run a relatively low-key effort, not making a grab for the spotlight. His strategists have said he was waiting for a moment to put his natural political talents on display.
It came Wednesday night.
His unspoken invitation to GOP primary voters: Imagine the charismatic 44-year-old son of Cuban immigrants on another debate stage a year from now, up against former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Privately, some strategists for the likely Democratic nominee, who has lately been on a roll, acknowledge this is the prospect they most worry about as well.
Of course, there is a long way to go between now and then, and many obstacles remain for Rubio.
“The election wasn’t decided last night, and we’re going to have another debate in 14 days, and that will replace in people’s memory this one, so it’s part of a process,” Rubio said Thursday morning on CNN.
He also lags far behind in the polls — and in the traditional metrics of money, organization and endorsements. Rubio’s role in crafting a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 may be a disqualifier in the view of many in the conservative base.
And to many Republicans, the idea of electing a first-term senator who is long on eloquence and short on accomplishments seems uncomfortably reminiscent of how the country voted to put Barack Obama in the White House in 2008.
Then again, with the Iowa caucuses less than 100 days away, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the sprawling, fractious GOP field who is equipped to bring together the party’s establishment and insurgent wings.
The most memorable moment of the debate was an exchange between Rubio and his one-time political mentor, Jeb Bush, who is struggling to regain his standing as the establishment favorite.
Bush criticized Rubio for missing more votes than any other senator this year.
“What is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?” Bush said. “You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job. There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well, they’re looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.”
Rubio had seen that one coming, and was ready with a devastating counterattack.
He noted that Bush, in his attempts to regain his standing as the establishment favorite, had compared his efforts to those of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who resurrected a campaign that had been left for dead and went on to win his party’s nomination in 2008.
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
As Rubio took a victory lap of six network and cable news shows Thursday morning after the debate, he resisted all opportunities to keep bashing Bush. He told NBC’s “Today Show” host Savannah Guthrie: “I still have tremendous admiration for him both as a person and what he did as governor of Florida. I’m not going to talk bad about Governor Jeb Bush. My campaign is not about him.”
Instead, he trained his criticism on Clinton, and on another foil he cited frequently during the debate — the media.
He said her testimony last week before the House Select Committee on Benghazi had opened up new, troublesome issues that had been covered up by a blanket of fawning coverage.
“In that testimony, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton knew early on, and was telling her family and telling her friends that the attack on the consulate was by terrorists, al-Qaeda-like terrorists. And yet for a week, not just her, but a lot of people in the administration were going around telling the families of the victims and the American public that it was due to a video,” Rubio said on CNN. “And the reason why they did that is because they were in the midst of a presidential election, in which the president was arguing that al-Qaeda was defeated and on the run.”
“And yet,” he added, “the media around the country hailed her performance as incredible; the best week of her campaign.”
Rubio also spoke to the frustrations within his own party, over the fact that its growing dominance of the legislative branch has not yielded the policy results that many had hoped.
“The time has come for my party, the Republican Party, and America to turn the page and elect a new generation of leaders, so that in the next Congress, when they start taking votes on some of these issues, they will be meaningful votes, not show votes,” he said, “because there is actually going to be a president on the other end of that process that is going to work for those things to pass, and then sign them into law.”
In other words, his argument suggested, the first thing the Republicans must figure out is how to win back the White House. And that means finding a candidate who can express the aspirations of the entire country, and not just the agitation of the conservative base.