Swing and a miss.
It was the story of the night, the story of the debate, and it might soon be the story of Jeb Bush’s campaign.
His timing was logical and yet inopportune; CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla had been quizzing Rubio about his mounting number of missed Senate votes, which prompted a Florida newspaper to call for his resignation. Rubio responded forcefully by decrying the newspaper’s “double standard” of endorsing Democratic candidates who had similarly missed votes. The audience rallied behind Rubio, roaring with approval — and just then, Bush decided to jump in.
“Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush lectured. “You can campaign [for president] 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 are looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.”
From the arena, at the University of Colorado Boulder, came a flicker of faint applause.
Rubio, looking not ruffled in the slightest, asked for time to respond. When it was granted, he reminded Bush about his recent promise to run a campaign like John McCain’s in 2008 — “by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport.” Then he asked Bush: “Do you know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling [your campaign] after?”
Bush tried to interrupt, but Rubio spoke over him. “Jeb, I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record. 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.”
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The audience cheered and someone whistled loudly. Bush folded his hands together and smiled timidly. He began to respond, but Rubio wasn’t done, and the senator again overpowered his old friend.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Rubio said. “I’m not — my campaign is going to be about the future of America. It’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush. I’m not running against Governor Bush. I’m not running against anyone on this stage. I am running for president, because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies of Barack Obama.”
The applause grew louder yet. And Bush, attempting once more to respond, was once more drowned out — this time by a combination of the audience, the moderators, and a smirking Donald Trump proclaiming to the masses: “I told you that they did not like each other!”
“In presidential debates, knockouts come on the counter-punch. Marco Rubio knocked Jeb Bush out tonight — flat on his butt,” Steve Schmidt, McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, said on MSNBC afterward. “Worst day of the campaign for Jeb Bush since his announcement was tonight. It was a devastating moment. And it showed a political tone-deafness, because the crowd had erupted into cheers with Rubio’s defense and even after the cheering, Jeb Bush leaned right in with his chin to Marco Rubio, who was clearly prepared for it.”
It was perhaps Bush’s weakest moment of the campaign, and perhaps Rubio’s strongest, creating the equivalent of a scorecard swing in boxing
To add insult to injury for Bush, when CNBC’s John Harwood wrested back control of the conversation after some cross-talk, he immediately directed this question to Bush: “Governor, the fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen in this race, despite the big investment your donors have made. You noted recently after slashing your payroll that you had better things to do than sit around and be demonized by other people.”
Bush cut him off there, insisting that what he’d really said is that voters should elect someone else if they want a president to maintain the status quo. He then hailed his “proven, effective leadership” and asked voters to choose him “so I can fight for the American people and change the culture in Washington, D.C.”
The entire exchange lasted only 90 seconds, but in the annals of modern presidential politics it could be immortalized — like Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to repeat the term “Obamneycare” to Mitt Romney’s face during a 2012 debate — as a moment, witnessed by millions of viewers worldwide, that contrasted the capabilities of two candidates on very different trajectories.
Rubio’s campaign raced to publish the tit-for-tat on its YouTube page, and news outlets nationwide will no doubt lead their debate stories with it. But even as it was happening it had the feeling of a watershed moment, one that could be remembered as the critical point when Rubio and Bush diverged.
Their showdown was all the more resonant because of how it encapsulated the two-hour affair for both candidates. Bush was creaky and diffident throughout; Rubio was sharp and assertive in delivering one polished response after another, all while facing aggressive questioning from CNBC’s moderators.
Meanwhile, the post-debate atmospherics and commentary — from pundits as well as campaign officials — certainly lent credence to the image of two campaigns headed in opposite directions.
While Rubio spokesman Alex Conant spoke of receiving calls from Bush donors after the debate, Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz was forced to swat away questions about his candidate quitting the race after Wednesday’s performance — from a perception-is-reality standpoint a fair indication of rock bottom.Diaz was pressed to comment on his boss’s bad night, and found himself explaining to reporters that he’d complained to CNBC during the debate about his candidate’s lack of time. (Bush spoke the least of all ten candidates on stage, according to a New York Times tally; Rubio finished second only to Carly Fiorina.)
Asked about the Bush-Rubio exchange, Diaz allowed, “I think everybody here understands that Marco Rubio is an outstanding performer.”
Bush and his campaign knew as much coming into Wednesday’s debate; no other candidate has a more intimate understanding of Rubio’s talents. And yet, burdened by sinking poll numbers and anxious donors and a fast-cementing narrative about his general malaise, Bush decided it was time to attack.
It backfired. And as a consequence, Bush’s burdens just became a whole lot heavier.
— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.