Skeptics had started to write off Marco Rubio leading up to Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate. He made little noise on the campaign trail. His national poll numbers stalled. His outside political cash came from only a handful of very wealthy donors.
Then came Rubio’s first chance to respond to a debate question Thursday night. In a single answer, he deflected criticism of his limited experience, pivoted to attacking Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and dove into his endearing personal story.
“If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck?” Rubio said. “I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she going to lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago. If I’m our nominee, we will be the party of the future.”
Rubio was back.
He never left, of course — just got temporarily drowned out by the clatter of the campaign crowd. Other candidates are better known and better funded. But Rubio is a candidate made for TV.
His hometown rival, Jeb Bush, is not — at least not when it comes to debates. And Thursday’s was the most-watched primary debate in history: About 24 million curious viewers tuned into the show, anchored by center-stage candidate Donald Trump.
Trump said things that would have gotten a non-celebrity politician in trouble. A single-payer healthcare system for the U.S. “could have worked in a different age,” he said.
He also scowled and showed signs of why he might wear thin in the campaign, though none of his past bombastic remarks has made any dents in his popularity. Trump attacked Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly when she asked about his disparaging comments toward women.
“You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” Kelly said. After the debate, Trump opined on Twitter that Kelly “bombed,” and retweeted a supporter who called her a “bimbo.”
Even if the debate doesn’t dislodge Trump from the top of the GOP polls, it might have nudged undecided financial donors toward a well-performing candidate.
Bush, who favors more relaxed one-on-one interviews that get deeper into policy matters, didn’t have a bad showing. He faced more pointed questions than Rubio, particularly about some of his positions unpopular with conservatives, including immigration reform and Common Core educational standards, and Bush handled them with deftness.
“He didn’t back down on immigration. He doesn’t pander,” said former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who traveled to the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland to “spin” reporters on Bush’s behalf. “As my son wrote me: ‘Concrete, specific achievements.’ He’s ready.”
On education in particular — perhaps Bush’s favorite wonky policy subject — the former Florida governor appeared to come into his own.
“I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in the creation of standards directly or indirectly, the creation of curriculum or content. It is clearly a state responsibility,” he said before being interrupted by applause.
“I’m for higher standards, measured in an intellectually honest way, with abundant school choice, ending social promotion. And I know how to do this because as governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country, the second statewide voucher program in the country, and the third statewide voucher program in the country.”
(He didn’t mention that one of those programs was ultimately struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.)
Bush made no gaffes, didn’t pick any fights — in spite of moderators’ efforts to try to pit him against Rubio — and even had Trump declare him a “gentleman.” For a candidate with a big target on his back, that was good enough.
Yet Bush at times looked uncomfortable and stilted. He’s engaging in small settings, at ease speaking off the cuff with long, thoughtful answers, so it can be jarring to see him stiffen behind a lectern and under the clock.
Rubio, in contrast, largely follows a script in town hall-style meetings and avoids messy policy details if he’s not prepared for them. The Florida senator cracks jokes, speaks easily and connects with his audience, but rarely veers from things he’s said before.
That makes him well-suited for the more regimented style of debates. As a result, Rubio can stumble — as he did Thursday night on abortion — and still declare himself a winner.
Rubio said he had “never advocated” for a rape and incest exception to abortion bans, even though he supported a 2013 bill in the Senate and a similar bill in 2015 that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks and included those exceptions. His campaign said later he backed the legislation as a compromise to reduce abortions. In a round of victory-lap interviews on Friday morning news shows, Rubio maintained he opposes rape-and-incest exceptions.
And therein lies Rubio’s political talent: He managed to take a hard-line anti-abortion position — even committed pro-lifers like Bush support rape-and-incest exceptions — in a nationally televised debate, and yet he didn’t get accused on stage of being an extremist. Rubio can say very conservative things without coming off as hardline as, say, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — a tea-party darling with little appeal to more moderate voters who cast ballots in general elections.
“Hillary Clinton Should Be Scared of Marco Rubio,” read a Friday post-debate statement from Rubio’s campaign.
Both Bush and Rubio pushed to raise money off their performances.
“Look, I’m not running to be your talker-in-chief,” Bush’s email began — in a subtle dig at Rubio.