Jeb Won, Rubio Helped Himself the Most, and Thoughts on What Might Have Been

by David French

Tonight’s debate featured by far the best Jeb Bush performance to date. He was funny, quick on his feet, and his policy answers (with the exception of immigration) were spot on. I wanted to cheer when he issued the strongest call yet in this campaign to get the lawyers off the back of the military (an under-appreciated disaster in our war against jihadists). This was the Jeb so many people are excited about when they interact with him in small groups. He’s a good man, and I was glad to see him have this moment. If the votes hold even remotely close to the polls, this might be his last debate. If it is, he went out on a high note.

Amongst the leaders, Rubio performed the best and probably helped himself the most. He’s very good at turning questions back to attacks on Hillary, and I agree with this, from Rich:

Regarding immigration, it’s an absolute mistake to believe that every Republican voter agrees with Trump, and when Rubio speaks like he does in the clip below (up the 1:40 mark), I think he hits closer to home for many millions of GOP voters:

Incidentally, this clip includes one of Bush’s best moments — his reference to the bargain price of his book was self-deprecating and amusing, and his counterattack on Rubio was effective. But, substantively, Rubio is exactly right that “the only way forward is to first bring illegal immigration under control.”

Ted Cruz was effective, and I applaud him unreservedly for his principled stand against ethanol subsidies. Moreover, his opening shot at Donald Trump — mocking his propensity for cheap personal attacks — was funny and effective. But he tangled with the moderators awkwardly, and the line of questioning regarding his likability seemed to come straight from Trump/establishment talking points. But as effective as he was, he can’t outshine Rubio at his best, and — because of the large field — he seemed to disappear for long stretches of the debate. If I had to guess, I’d say that Rubio may have slightly narrowed the gap between the two.

Finally, this debate was a fascinating glimpse into what might have been absent the disrupting force of Donald Trump. Bush was far more at ease without one of the candidates hurling middle school insults at him, and the debate itself was substantive — showcasing the GOP’s most effective communicators. This is why people said the GOP had a “deep bench” in 2016. Absent Trump, the three-man contest likely would have been between Bush, Rubio, and Cruz. But might-have-beens are irrelevant, and in this evening’s audition for the best alternative to Donald Trump, Marco Rubio won the night. 

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