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Opinion The third GOP debate: Rubio soars

See Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) most memorable moments of the third Republican debate. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
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Going into the GOP presidential debate tonight, Jeb Bush’s SuperPAC, Right to Rise, began hitting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) with a new Twitter account, @IsMarcoWorking, for missing votes in the Senate.  But it’s not necessarily a felony offense in a party in which contempt for the time-wasting Senate is prevalent. Predictably, the effort prompted a cynical “so what” response from many conservative media types on social media. It should have been a blinking red light the attack was a loser. (Even worse was the announcement Dan Quayle, his father’s VP, was endorsing him. Really?  It only underscored concerns about a dynastic-centered and backward-looking campaign.)

The debate itself was chaotic, unruly and rife with inane questions. Candidates who attempted to ask questions were abruptly cut off.  Moderators did not drill down on economic matters, but instead went rifling through opposition research. That said, rising above the fray is part of what a candidate must do.

In that department Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had a stellar response early on, slamming all the silly questions being asked. Later, he gave a succinct description of his tax plan and heartfelt responses regarding single mothers and working women, decrying the Obama economy. It was his best debate so far, but he did not dominate.

How the candidates jousted with the CNBC moderators (Video: Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a major figure in the debate, demonstrating his considerable stage presence. Early on he went after the Democrats with verve. “I saw a socialist, pessimist and an isolationist on the last Democrat debate stage,” he said. He added, “I know who the pessimist is, it’s Hillary Clinton. And if you put me on that stage with her next September, she won’t get within ten miles of the White House, take it to the bank.” That should hit home with Republicans honest enough to see Clinton will be formidable. Later, he looked right in the camera, telling the audience on entitlements, ” The government lied and stole your money.” He certainly looked like a grownup.

Late in the debate Christie gave an impassioned defense of police officers, accusing the president of not sticking up for them. He declared, “The number one job of the President is to protect the safety and security of the American people. This President has failed, and when I’m in the Oval Office, police officers will know they have the support of the President of the United States, that’s the real moral authority we need in the Oval Office.” His best moment came later in the debate when he excoriated the moderator for asking about fantasy football when we have huge problems. “Are we really talking about getting the government involved in fantasy football? Wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us and we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? Seriously, how about this? . . . . Enough on fantasy football, let people play, who cares?”

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Rubio had an outstanding night, perhaps dealing a fatal blow to his toughest rival for mainstream voters. He began by easily deflecting the moderator’s question regarding a the Sun-Sentinel’s suggestion he resign and asking in effect if Rubio should wait his turn. Rubio turned the question around, saying that America could not wait, that America had serious issues. He also decried liberal media bias, pointing out that the Florida paper had not raised the same issue with Democratic senators. He comfortably deflected a question about his tax plan, fending off interruptions to make the case his plan was helpful to the middle class. (He was not pressed on a real weakness, a zero percent capital gains tax that would mean Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney likely would pay practically no tax.)

The biggest moment however came when Jeb tried to directly call out Rubio for his attendance record, saying he should resign if he did not show up for work. Rubio seized control, telling him, “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.It’s not.” He continued, “I’m not running against Gov. Bush. I’m not running against anyone else on the stage. I’m running for president.” Bam.  In that exchange Bush suffered a severe blow, and Rubio demonstrated he could take a punch. Bush practically disappeared from the debate after that. Late in the debate he got a question on his tax plan, he answered competently, but without much fire.

Rubio continued to gain steam. He calmly rebutted a question challenging his support for H1-B visas. He neatly pivoted to worker training, emphasizing the need to bolster skills of Americans.  Rubio won further applause saying “Democrats have the ultimate SuperPAC — it’s called the mainstream media.” That got another round of cheers, as did his attack on Hillary Clinton, whom he said was shown at the Benghazi hearing to be a liar.

Rubio and Christie overshadowed others, who did well but did not dominate.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich was fiery at the start, accusing his competitors of putting out unrealistic plans. He stressed his own record of competence, and made an impassioned plea for colleges to control costs and get out of ancillary businesses.

Carly Fiorina was poised and articulate, making her case against government meddling, which she said begets more meddling. She did not however stand out in the debate as she did in the last one. The competition is getting stronger.

Strangely, both Trump and Dr. Ben Carson were non-factors. When questions went to Carson his soft-spoken tone sucked the energy from the room. His response explaining his tax plan was less than coherent. He was more effective when he was calmly explaining that opposing gay marriage does not make him a homophobe and denying allegations he was peddling quack medicine. He did not convey the energy and dynamism many voters are looking for.

Trump was nearly irrelevant on the stage, demurring and getting few questions.  Trump refused to attack Mark Zuckerberg. (He allegedly called Rubio “Zuckerberg’s personal senator” for supporting immigration reform). He even defended his support for legal immigration, which probably won’t please his anti-immigrant friends in talk radio. (Weirdly he then boasted he had gotten great returns for his money in his campaign, moving on to bash SuperPAC’s.) He gave a noncontroversial answer slamming no-gun zones. In a complete about face, he refrained from attacking any competitors. Deprived of the opportunity to do the Trump show, one wonders how his campaign will stay aloft.

Winners: Rubio, Christie, Cruz.

Losers: CNBC moderators, Bush, Carson and Trump.