Sen. 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 senator from Florida said coolly, proceeding to swat back Trump with ease on the signature issue of the celebrity billionaire: immigration.
If Wednesday’s debate was any indication, Rubio has learned not only the rules but also 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 a debate stage a year from now, up against presumed Democratic nominee and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Privately, some strategists for the likely Democratic nominee, who has lately been on a roll, acknowledge that this is the prospect that most worries them 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. The next debate is Nov. 10.
He lags far behind in the polls, in which outsiders Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have captured the favor of an angry GOP base.
Rubio also is running behind in the traditional metrics, of money, organization and endorsements, where more-established candidates have an edge.
Moreover, his role in crafting a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 — which has been his chief accomplishment there and one he now largely disavows — may be a disqualifier in the view of many in the conservative base.
To many Republicans, the idea of electing a first-term senator who is long on eloquence but short on accomplishments seems uncomfortably reminiscent of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s run for 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.
“Marco is uniquely positioned to be able to unite the Republican Party,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said. “If Marco is the nominee, we will defeat Hillary Clinton. There is a very clear generational contrast between her message and Marco’s, and America is ready to turn the page.”
That could also be said of the signal that he is trying to send to his own party.
A pivotal moment of the debate was an exchange between Rubio and his one-time political mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose famous last name has become as much a liability as an asset.
Bush criticized Rubio for missing more votes than any other senator this year.
“What is it, like a French workweek? 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 — and patronizing — 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 the 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 the morning after the debate, he sidestepped opportunities to keep bashing Bush. He told Savannah Guthrie, host of NBC’s “Today” show: “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 news media.
Rubio said Clinton’s testimony last week before the House Select Committee on Benghazi had raised new, troublesome issues, which 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, about how its growing dominance of the legislative branch has not yielded the policy results for which 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, he suggested, Republicans must keep their focus on winning back the White House. And that means finding a candidate who can express the aspirations of the entire country — not just the agitation of the conservative base.