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Why the Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio showdown during the Republican debate was so dramatic

During the CNBC Republican debate on Wednesday, Marco Rubio defended his less-than-stellar attendance record in the Senate. Then he got a follow-up question from a man who identified himself as "a constituent."

That man was Jeb Bush.

What followed was 60 seconds of pure, crackling drama: a fight that, given the candidates' backstories, was the equivalent of Darth Vader taking on Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But it was also a moment that had been a long time coming. Bush and Rubio have been existing uncomfortably in the same race for several months. But this party only has space for one of them. And it's possible that if neither of them drops out soon, they'll end up splitting Republican establishment energies — at exactly the time when party elites need to unite behind a candidate to take down Donald Trump or Ben Carson.

Bush and Rubio have been headed on a collision course since the campaign began

Bush and Rubio came out of the same Florida swamp. Bush was Rubio's mentor. When Rubio became speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Jeb let him in on a Bush family inside joke (the ridiculous backstory of which even Jeb didn't understand) by gifting him the "sword of Chang."

That's why there was so much psychological drama in their debate fight, but it matters for more than aesthetic reasons: It means that Rubio's longest-standing relationships with donors are with Bush allies, who may have committed to supporting Jeb in 2016 before Rubio even had much of a Senate career under his belt.

If Rubio were able to run as a political outsider, that might not be a problem. But he was always going to run as an establishment candidate, because his appeal — like Bush's — is most appealing to establishment Republicans. Both candidates offer the tantalizing promise of winning some Latinos back to the Republican Party. Both have domestic policy chops; Rubio, in particular, is a favorite of "reform conservatives." And both offer some understanding of tax policy and foreign policy without challenging Republican orthodoxy.

It's been clear since Rubio declared his candidacy that if he wanted to win the nomination, he would have to take down Jeb Bush. But by this fall, it was Bush who had to look out for Rubio.

Rubio is a better campaigner, while Bush's supporters are getting cold feet

Marco Rubio is an incredible political talent. He's very adept at using his biography to his advantage, and he comes off as an optimist: "a happy conservative," as one Republican fundraiser told me back in April. What that means, in practical terms, is that he's very good at winning over a room.

That was visible during the early stages of the campaign, before Trump and Carson took the oxygen out of the rest of the GOP field, when Rubio was stumping well in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's been visible during the first two Republican debates, both of which pundits widely agreed Rubio won (though voters didn't agree). And it matters a lot to donors. It matters both that Rubio seems to be closely engaged with them as donors (some of his biggest donors text back and forth with him) and that when they see him campaign, they feel reassured that they've backed a good horse.

Jeb Bush, on the other hand, has shown throughout the campaign that he would really rather not be doing this. His first two debate performances were uninspired at best. Trump's characterization of him as "low-energy" stuck. He seemed to be unable to win any excitement from the GOP base, and when he did try to appeal to them he inevitably did it in the most awkward way possible: by offending Asian Americans, for example. This past weekend — right before a Bush family summit about his campaign — he sounded even more critical of the Republican field than Kasich was during the debate:

So it's not surprising that Rubio has made a play for Jeb supporters. At the beginning of the summer, Rubio started wooing Bush donors (though his summer fundraising numbers were unimpressive). And at least one high-profile policy adviser, Georgetown professor Nicholas Rosenkranz, left Team Bush this week to join Rubio's campaign.

The establishment is running out of time to pick a candidate

When Donald Trump started surging in the polls in June, he got compared to 2011 Republican candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, or Newt Gingrich — all of whom collapsed in the polls after a month or so, and none of whom made it very far into the actual primaries. That was June. Many national polls still show Trump in the lead at the end of October. And those that don't show Ben Carson in the lead — the only candidate in the race who is even more of a political outsider than Trump.

Republican donors and political elites might have assumed that this was a fever that would break, with voters eventually buckling down to the business of picking a nominee from among the "real" candidates. They now have very good reason to doubt that will happen. So they have to turn to the alternative: choosing a single candidate to throw their resources behind.

Sometimes this subtext has burst to the surface. When Scott Walker quit the race in September, he explicitly urged some of the other candidates to do the same, as the New York Times reported:

Without naming Mr. Trump, Mr. Walker issued a plea to fellow candidates to coalesce around a different Republican who could offer a more "optimistic" vision and guide the party to a victory next year that, he admitted with sadness in his voice, he could not achieve himself.

"Today I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field," Mr. Walker said. "With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately.

"Optimistic"? "A positive, conservative message"? If you didn't know better, you'd think Walker was endorsing Marco Rubio.

He didn't have to come out and say it. Washington has begun to coalesce around the idea that Rubio will be the eventual Republican nominee. This is a trick of politics: People often say that something "will happen" when they mean they want it to happen, and often talk themselves into supporting things because they believe they're inevitable. (This is, in fact, the way elites have historically seen Republican primaries. The Washington cliché is, "Democrats fall in love with a candidate; Republicans fall in line.")

Before this week, Bush was very nearly in danger of becoming completely irrelevant. His only choice was to attack Rubio. Bush knew it. Rubio knew it. And Rubio even said it out loud, later in the debate, to let Bush know he knew it:


Rubio won

Bush's attack on Rubio was by far the best he's looked during a presidential debate. It was clearly practiced, but it was fluid and passionate — almost as if Bush were personally aggrieved with the way Rubio's gotten in his way this year and was letting it all out.

But Bush made two tremendous mistakes. The first was picking the debate as a venue to challenge Rubio to begin with, since Rubio has been so good at them and Bush has been so bad.

The second was letting everyone know how he planned to attack Rubio: Donald Trump hit Rubio over his attendance in the Senate last month, but it's the Bush campaign that's been harping on it this week.

Bush was prepared. But Rubio was also prepared, and sharper. After cutting Bush to the quick — "Jeb, let me tell you, I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. The only reason you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position" — he denied that's what he'd done. "I can't campaign about the future of America or attacking anyone else on this stage," he said. Rubio became a happy conservative again. And that was that.

UPDATE: Props to reader Dan Kohn, who pointed out that my original link to the "sword of Chang" anecdote missed the joke's delightful backstory.