It’s good to be Marco Rubio. You’re young, smart, and good-looking. In a party that needs credibility with Hispanic voters, you’re Cuban American. You’re a great talker. You’re a rising star in a party that’s eating its elders. Insurgents admire you, yet the GOP establishment trusts you. Republicans are looking for a new leader, and you seem to be it.
Tuesday night’s GOP debate showed how everything is opening up for Rubio. He’s good, and he’s lucky. He didn’t dominate the conversation, but the dynamics worked in his favor. To begin with, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got bumped off the stage. Christie isn’t a threat to Rubio, but he’s a terrific debater. With Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee banished to the undercard event, the visible field of candidates narrowed to eight.
Jeb Bush, who once again needed to stand out, didn’t. On stage after stage, it has become obvious that Rubio is a much better talker. Bush, sensing the threat, staged a head-on collision with Rubio in their previous debate. And Bush lost it.
Bush was better on Tuesday. But if you’re a Republican donor or undecided voter, you saw the same liabilities you’ve seen before. When Bush tries to look strong, he sounds weak. He repeatedly summarized his foreign-policy vision with the passive phrase, “Voids are filled.” He said carbon emissions were down thanks to “the explosion of natural gas.” At one point, he babbled, “I was in Washington—Iowa—about three months ago talking about how bad Washington, D.C., is. It was—get the—kind of the—anyway.” Bush pleaded for air time, telling Donald Trump, “Thank you, Donald, for allowing me to speak at the debate.” Later, in a succinct display of their alpha and beta personalities, Trump silenced Bush during an exchange by extending an arm and barking, “Hold it.” In his closing statement, Bush promised not to be an “agitator in chief.”
Any viewer looking for a pragmatist was probably more impressed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who seized that role from Bush. Kasich presented himself as the candidate of fiscal responsibility and sensible compassion, particularly with regard to immigration and government assistance. By taking market share from Bush, Kasich can help clear the way for Rubio.
If Rubio stays ahead of the other candidates who have held elected office, he’ll win the nomination. That’s because the candidates who haven’t held office, led by Trump and Ben Carson, don’t have the sanity or skill to endure. Carson is being vetted for the first time, and it shows. Trump, who likes to call other people “low-energy,” delivered his flattest performance of the year.
It’s possible that, having run out of gas in the polls, Trump is losing enthusiasm for the campaign. But the more worrisome sign is that the audience seemed tired of him. He was booed for dismissing Kasich and for belittling Carly Fiorina. The crowd applauded Fiorina as she mocked Trump’s boast about appearing on a TV show with Vladimir Putin. When Trump denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a scheme to help China, Sen. Rand Paul embarrassed him by pointing out, “China is not part of this deal.”
Against this background, Rubio looked good. It started with the debate’s first question, about the minimum wage. Trump botched it, shrugging that people “have to work really hard” instead of expecting a better entry wage. Carson wandered into a sermon about how the government fosters dependency. Rubio, the next man up, rejected Trump’s answer, insisting that people are “working as hard as ever.” He summarized his humble upbringing, pivoted to his generational pitch about emerging economic challenges, and crisply explained the dilemma: “If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine.”
The debate’s moderators might as well have been on Rubio’s payroll. Their next question to him was a carbon copy of his first answer: “How do you reassure American workers that their jobs are not being steadily replaced by machines?” This was essentially an invitation to deliver his stump speech, and he nailed it.
The third question he got was about his tax plan. Rubio followed Bush this time, which gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his superiority as a speaker. The question, which focused on Rubio’s proposal to expand the child tax credit, also allowed him to turn a dry economic subject into a cultural-values pitch. “Yes, I have a child tax credit increase, and I’m proud of it,” he replied. “The pro-family tax plan I have will strengthen the most important institution in the country: the family.”
Then Rubio got another break. Rand Paul attacked him for extending the tax credit, as an outright payment, to people who don’t earn enough money to owe income taxes. Rubio jumped at the opportunity to be the champion of struggling parents. “If you invest that money in a piece of equipment, if you invest that money in a business, you get to write it off your taxes,” he fumed. “But if you invest it in your children, in the future of America and strengthening your family, we’re not going to recognize that in our tax code?”
Paul also went after Rubio for military spending. Thanks to Paul’s attack, Rubio got to be the guy who rebuked isolationism and spoke up for American strength against China, Iran, and “radical jihadists.” Later, in another rebuttal to Paul, Rubio showed off his fluency in global affairs, discussing Ukraine, Georgia, Libya, Pakistan, Turkey, and Jordan. And nearly 90 minutes into the debate, Rubio got in the first words of praise for Israel.
The moderators’ final pitch was an egregious softball:
Sen. Rubio, Hillary Clinton is the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. If she is indeed the nominee, you will be facing a candidate with an impressive résumé. ... Why should the American people trust you to lead this country, even though she has been so much closer to the office?
The wording of the question—“you will be facing”—was such an obvious set-up that everyone laughed, including Rubio. He reprised his campaign themes about generational change and concluded: “If I am our nominee, they will be the party of the past. We will be the party of the 21st century.” It’s obvious that this is where the race is going. The Republican establishment wants it. The press wants it. In the end, it will be a two-man race between Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz. And in that personality contest, Rubio can’t lose.