I distinctly remember at least two brutal debate moments from the 2012 election. The first everyone knows – Rick Perry’s famous forgetful moment. The second, few people remember, but I remember it well. In a debate just before the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney didn’t just fumble repeated questions on his refusal – to that point — to release his tax returns, he fumbled so badly that Romney supporters (and I was one) wondered if something was wrong with him. Newt Gingrich capitalized, he won South Carolina, and just like that the front-runner’s campaign was on the ropes.
We know the rest of the story. Perry never recovered, and his once-promising candidacy went up in smoke. The public never gave America’s most successful governor another shot to make his case. Romney, however, came back with strong debate performances, beat Gingrich at his own game, and won Florida. From that point, the nomination was his to lose.
Marco Rubio’s already-famous exchange with Chris Christie was indeed a brutal moment. I still can’t believe that Rubio went back to the same talking point right after Christie called him on it. Watching it real-time, I honestly wondered if Rubio forgot what he just said. When he started to do the same thing a third time, I couldn’t believe my ears. Christie wasn’t masterful — not by any means — Rubio just served him the worst kind of hanging curve. Here is the exchange again, in full:
I like Rubio. I’ve made no secret of that fact. And a number of his other debate answers were excellent (his answer on women and the draft, however, was just dreadful, PC nonsense.) But the fact that he knew he would be a target and stumbled so badly is troubling.
This is why we have debates. This is why we test candidates again and again through a grueling primary. They are running for perhaps the world’s most significant job, and they have to prove that they not only have the right ideas, but that they can handle the monumental stress of the moment. Within weeks (and perhaps even days), we’ll learn if Rubio’s moment tonight was fatal like Perry’s or survivable like Romney’s. One thing is certain — Rubio’s campaign faces a crisis. A future president can rise to the challenge. Will Rubio?