Florida Republicans knew that the inevitable moment would arrive sooner or later, the one they had anticipated with a mix of fascinated horror and perverse curiosity: the moment in which Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio would turn on each other.
The moment came Wednesday night, almost at the start of the third Republican primary debate. One-time mentor Bush and protégé Rubio, both on a first-name basis on stage, fired at each other. But Rubio did better.
It began when CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla asked if Rubio, who holds the worst attendance record in the U.S. Senate, should resign. Rubio was ready: He fired off a response about liberal-media bias and noted past Democratic presidential candidates — Bob Graham, John Kerry, Barack Obama — blew off Senate votes too.
“Could I bring something up here?” Bush stepped in. “Because I’m a constituent of the senator, and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means he shows up to work.”
“But Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush continued. “I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? 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.”
Again, Rubio was prepared.
“Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to Jeb as he walked around the country and said that you're modeling your campaign after John McCain, that you’re going to launch a furious comeback the way he did, by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport,” Rubio said, turning to Bush, who was standing next to him.
You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.
Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” he continued. “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.”
Applause rang out at the debate hall at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The exchange might have continued if the moderators had let it continue. But they cut it off, one of many occasions in which they stifled actual debating to stick to time limits.
Rubio also deflected another pointed question about his checkered personal finances. All the points CNBC’s Becky Quick raised — that he accidentally comingled campaign and personal funds as a state lawmaker, that a second home he purchased with friend David Rivera went briefly into foreclosure proceedings, that he liquidated a retirement fund last year — were true. Yet Rubio dismissed the issues as “a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents,” and turned to his oft-told personal success story.
“I didn’t inherit any money. My dad was a bartender, my mother was a maid,” he said. “I’m not worried about my finances, I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans who today are struggling in an economy that is not producing good-paying jobs while everything else costs more.”
Quick pressed Rubio about cashing out a 401(k) — a questionable financial move — even after making a “windfall” from his political memoir. “As I said, we’re raising a family in the 21st century,” he demurred. He never answered the question.
I didn’t inherit any money. My dad was a bartender, my mother was a maid.
Bush needed a standout night in the wake of a fundraising quarter that fell short of expectations and forced campaign budget cuts. During the debate, his staff stressed the former Florida governor’s focus on substance over flash. But Bush didn’t intimidate his rivals.
“I can’t fake anger,” Bush said right off the bat when moderators asked candidates about their weaknesses. “I can’t do it.” (Donald Trump, the only other candidate to offer a response rather than a political platitude, declared himself “too trusting.”) After the debate, Bush told CNN that he’s going to “win this the old-fashioned way” by shaking hands and talking face-to-face to voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I’m not a performer,” he said.
Republican primary voters so far, though, have been angry, backing Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson of West Palm Beach, both outsiders with unorthodox styles. Recent polls have shown Carson gaining or overtaking Trump, however, suggesting an opening for everyone else to mount the campaigns they had originally envisioned.
The more traditional candidates seem to be competing for two spots: one to represent the more moderate establishment and another to champion the conservative hard line. Wednesday’s debate made it look like the race could come down to Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz, a champion college debater, had laid low in the first two debates, offering answers that resonated with his voter base. On Wednesday, he pounced, like Rubio taking aim at the news media.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said, to much applause. “This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”
It made no difference that Cruz used his entire time to rip reporters rather than make a substantive point. His attack succeeded.
Trump, the celebrity real-estate tycoon, had a subdued night, striking a sorry-not-sorry note about his Atlantic City casino bankruptcy and sounding like he hadn’t read his own immigration proposal that criticized a certain type of work visa. Carson said from the start he wouldn’t go after his rivals and maintained his quiet approach.
Also on stage were Kasich, the Ohio governor; former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Four less-popular candidates — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — faced off earlier, giving viewers few reasons to tune in again in future debates.
Only Graham, a natural entertainer, got in a couple of good lines, including one about Democrats.
“Good God, look who we’re running against,” he said in exasperation. “The number one candidate on the other side thought she was flat broke after her and her husband were in the White House for eight years. The number two guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don't think he ever came back. If we don’t beat these people....”
A moderator cut him off.
McClatchy correspondent Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.