Donald Trump spoke for more than 11 minutes during the first Republican debate. Jeb Bush spoke for nearly nine. Marco Rubiospoke for six minutes and 46 seconds — a little less than John Kasich, a little more than Ben Carson. But the post-debate consensus in Washington was that he was the clear winner.
Update: Coverage of the second 2015 Republican debate.
At National Review Online, Jim Geraghty wrote, "Marco Rubio was really, really good tonight. Shining." Matt Continetti, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, said Rubio was "confident, energetic, eloquent, knowledgeable, and figured out the way to handle Donald Trump." Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard wrote, "If we were doing a sabermetric ranking of the candidates, [Rubio would] lead the field. Easily." Three of the seven Republican strategists in the Hill's debate roundtable picked Rubio as the debate's winner; only one named a different candidate in the primetime debate. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And it wasn't just Republican pundits who thought Rubio took home the prize. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza named him the winner of the debate, writing, "He looked the part of a president. Hurdle cleared." Vox's Ezra Klein tweeted "Rubio is better at delivering his story than any other GOPer and better at selling Republican policies than any other GOPer."
Here's how Rubio won.
A message against Hillary Clinton that also works against Jeb Bush
As Jon Allen pointed out when Rubio launched his campaign in May, the theme of Rubio's campaign — looking to the future rather than the past, "we must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them" — is an argument that works equally well against the Clinton dynasty and the Bush dynasty. And that's exactly how Rubio used it last night, in his opening answer.
Chris Wallace asked Rubio to tell Jeb Bush why gubernatorial experience wasn't necessary to be a good president. Rubio didn't take the bait. Instead, he said, "If this election is going to be a résumé competition, then Hillary Clinton's going to be the next president, because she's been in office and in government longer than anybody else running here tonight."
That freed him up to attack the Democratic frontrunner, rather than going after Bush. But the contrast Rubio wanted to draw between himself — younger, fresher, more energetic — and the Bushes was perfectly clear.
Rubio's opening also allowed him to play to one of his biggest political strengths: he's got a compelling family story, and he knows exactly how to use it. By the end of his answer, he'd built to "If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck." It was a really strong line — and as a bonus, it applied equally well not only to Bush and Clinton, but to Donald Trump.
Picking policy battles he can win
Because Rubio is young and telegenic, it's easy to underestimate his policy acumen, but many establishment Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) are convinced it's real.
With a big assist from the moderators, he managed to stay out of the biggest, messiest policy arguments of the night, about civil liberties and the Iraq War. He directly engaged other candidates only on two of the policy issues he knows best: immigration and education. And both times, he pretty much won — at least among people who cared about the policy exchange.
Rubio's immigration experience has often been a liability to him in the primary — as the pop-up bullet points during his opening remarks were happy to remind everyone, he was a co-sponsor of the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill that conservatives came to loathe. But his reply to Donald Trump about the US/Mexico border was the first time during the debate that a candidate leveled up from policy generalities to policy specifics:
Let me set the record straight on a couple of things. The first is, the evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico. They’re coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Those countries are the source of the people that are now coming in its majority.
I also believe we need a fence. The problem is if El Chapo builds a tunnel under the fence, we have to be able to deal with that too.
It was a succinct, but sharp, deflation of Trump's know-nothing bluster on the issue, which Rubio followed with a call for better interior immigration enforcement via an entry-exit visa system and E-Verify. Jeb Bush also believes in those things — in fact, they were centerpieces of the immigration plan Bush released Monday — and mentioned them in his earlier immigration answer. But it got lost between a rambling attack on Obama and a defense of legal status for unauthorized immigrants, which Rubio wisely avoided.
The oldest debate trick in the book: answering the question he wished he'd been asked
The moderators' choice of questions to Rubio worked in his favor. Bush was asked directly about legal status for unauthorized immigrants; Rubio wasn't. Rubio got asked about veterans; other candidates weren't. Rubio also got a Facebook question about helping small businesses succeed that had to have had the other candidates on the stage salivating. "They might as well have asked him if he loved his mother (which he answered anyway; he does)," snarked Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast.
But Rubio also did a good job making his own luck. When he was asked questions he didn't like, he smoothly pivoted to the thing he wanted to say anyway. When Megyn Kelly asked him why he supported exceptions to abortion bans for rape or incest, he simply said "I'm not sure that's a correct assessment of my record ... I have never said that, and I have never advocated that," and started talking about how the unborn deserve full protection under the law. His campaign followed up with reporters by explaining that Rubio had supported laws that made those exceptions because they were improvements on the status quo, but Rubio didn't waste time with that argument.
The tactic allowed him to hold his fire even when asked to criticize another candidate. Rubio's only real head-to-head argument of the night, about Common Core with Jeb Bush, wasn't really an argument at all. Bush answered a question about Common Core by talking about the importance of high standards; asked why Bush was wrong, Rubio didn't disagree with anything Bush had said or get into Bush's record, but instead made a sharp conservative argument against Common Core itself:
Here’s the problem with Common Core. The Department of Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied. They will not stop with it being a suggestion. They will turn it into a mandate.
In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is, you will not get federal money unless do you things the way we want you to do it. And they will use Common Core or any other requirements that exists nationally to force it down the throats of our people in our states.
As Vox's Libby Nelson writes, that's a decent characterization of federal education policy: "Common Core was never a federal mandate, but the Education Department did make lots of money contingent on states adopting either the Common Core or 'college- and career-ready standards.' And the federal government has enforced other education requirements, most notably the standardized testing regimen of No Child Left Behind."
The best thing that happened to Rubio: Bush underperformed
Rubio wasn't unknown before last night's debate. In fact, he's widely liked. He's the only Republican candidate seen favorably by a majority of Republican voters, according to a Gallup poll released the day of the debate. And among the broader electorate, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from the end of last month, Rubio is one of two Republican candidates with net-positive favorability; the other is John Kasich, about whom only 23 percent of Americans have any sort of opinion.
But Rubio hasn't been leading the polls (or anything close to it) because he's rarely anyone's first choice. In fact, for many donors and party leaders, he's second choice to a very particular opponent: Jeb Bush. Because Bush mentored Rubio in the early days in Florida, the men share a lot of the same donor and insider network, and some of those people committed years ago to support Jeb in 2016.
Bush and Rubio also occupy roughly the same space in the presidential election: If you want a candidate who might appeal to Latinos, or has serious domestic policy chops, or who understands tax policy and foreign policy but isn't going to pose much challenge to Republican Party orthodoxy — or even if you just like candidates from Florida — you might like Marco Rubio, but you also like the better-established and better-funded Jeb Bush.
That's why the best thing that happened for Marco Rubio during last night's debate wasn't anything he did — it was that Jeb Bush's performance was pretty lame. Rubio impressed a lot of people; Bush doesn't appear to have impressed anyone. "A weaker Mr. Bush probably benefits Mr. Rubio as much as anyone," Nate Cohn wrote in the New York Times, "and if Mr. Bush raised questions about whether he would be a great general election candidate, then Mr. Rubio added yet more reason to believe he could be a good one."
Bush's campaign isn't collapsing anytime soon — he has way too much money for that, and donors who've already committed to him won't back out on the strength of one debate performance. But for other Republican donors, looking for someone who can hold his own against Donald Trump in 2015 and against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Marco Rubio just made a strong play for attention.