Late in the second Republican debate, "high energy" Donald Trump was sounding sleepy. When moderator Jake Tapper asked him about his history of flubbing it on basic foreign policy issues, he just sounded tired. "The world is blowing up around us," Trump rotely responded. "We will have great teams and great people."
Sen. Marco Rubio, whose campaign trail attack on Trump prompted Tapper's questions, pounced.
"You should ask him questions in detail about the foreign policy issues our president will confront, because you had better be able to lead our country on the first day," Rubio said to Tapper. "Not six months from now, not a year from now, on the first day in office, our president could very well confront a national security crisis. You can't predict it. Sometimes you cannot control it."
Trump's response — "I am not sitting in the United States Senate. I'm a businessman" — was basically no response at all. It was a devastating indictment of the Donald's qualifications to be president, one well-pitched to a party that's become increasingly anxious about world affairs since the rise of ISIS.
But it was much more than that. The Trump-Rubio exchange, overshadowed by some of the flashier showdowns in the media post-mortems, was one of the most important moments of the night. It showed that Marco Rubio is the most viable Republican Trump-slayer: an articulate, confident conservative with foreign policy expertise that far outstrips the other major candidates. His poll numbers make him look like a dark horse, but last night's debate revealed that Rubio has a real — and increasingly viable — shot at winning the nomination.
Trump is the problem — and Rubio is the solution
The fundamental concern for Republicans in the past few weeks has been the outsider candidates. Currently, unelectable non-politicians Donald Trump and Ben Carson are winning an outright majority of support from primary voters. When you factor in Ted Cruz, whose bucking of the Senate GOP leadership has rendered him unacceptable to party leaders, the situation looks even grimmer.
Republican elites need someone to dethrone the populists — someone who's mainstream, polished, and has predictably conservative views. Early on, that was supposed to be Jeb Bush: he had the name, the connections, and the money.
But Bush's poll numbers have been sinking in the past few months. Last night's debate revealed why — Bush simply has no good answers to the big problems with his candidacy, particularly his relatively centrist stance on immigration and his family's legacy. Just look at how he responded to this question, from Hugh Hewitt, about why his main foreign policy advisers all have ties to George H.W. and W. Bush:
Well, first of all, Hugh, if you're looking at Republican advisers, you have to go to the last two administrations. That happened to be 41 and 43. So just by definition, if you're -- and many of the people here that are seeking advice from the foreign policy experts in the Republican side, they -- they served in my dad's administration, my brother's administration. Of course that's the case.
But I'm my own man.
That is, quite literally, the thing people don't like about Jeb. He has an obvious and unavoidable link to a Republican past with some spectacular failures under its belt, most notably in Iraq. The Republican support for outsider candidates, is in part, fueled by disdain for people like Bush. Jeb is the worst possible candidate for dethroning someone like Donald Trump.
Besides Bush, there are really only two other plausible establishment candidates: Scott Walker and Rubio. Walker's performance last night was utterly forgettable: this morning, I compiled a list of the most notable quotes from each candidate, and I had to really struggle to find something for Walker. This blandness speaks to Walker's inability to build a real support base. His poll numbers (even in Iowa, a state that should be favorable to someone as conservative as Walker) are collapsing. Reports from inside Team Walker suggest a campaign in disarray.
"There is mounting anxiety among Scott Walker donors about the direction of his campaign and increasing fears that it is running low on cash," the Washington Post's Matea Gold and Jenna Johnson reported Thursday morning. "Donors have started holding spontaneous conference calls, patching a half-dozen people together on the phone to try to game out what the governor should do."
That's why Rubio's performance at the debate was so critically important. The Trump exchange demonstrated that, unlike Bush, he knew how to handle Trump's gibes. When Trump accused him of having "the worst voting record there is today," he turned the conversation away from personal attacks to policy — moving the debate from where Trump was comfortable to the terrain on which he struggles.
Rubio has his problems (like Bush, his record on immigration is checkered). But he's broadly acceptable to all of the party's major wings, and already has a strong support base among the neoconservatives. To take but one example: one of his chief foreign policy advisers is Jamie Fly, the very well-connected former executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. That's a base on which he can build out support among the donor and activist class.
Indeed, Rubio just added Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney's 2012 policy director, to his campaign. It's a prominent pickup that illustrates Rubio's appeal not just among foreign policy conservatives, but the Republican elite writ large.
And, in the long run, elite support can swing a primary to the outcome of the primary. Political science research on the so-called "invisible primary" shows that endorsements and leadership support is a, if not the, critical factor in helping candidates marshall support as the campaign goes on. If Rubio keeps performing well, and Bush and Walker keep sagging, he's in a strong position to consolidate anti-outsider elites.
"Bush needs to appear more impressive on the campaign trail to lock up more endorsements," political scientist Jonathan Ladd wrote of the debate. "For now, a path to the nomination is still open for candidates like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, who didn't get a lot of screen time but appeared competent when they were on camera, and who avoided letting Trump under their skin the way Jeb did."
Rubio's poll numbers, as they stand, aren't all that impressive. And his similarly strong performance last debate didn't help. But his thwacking of Trump last night showed why he might be the candidate best positioned, in the long run, to take advantage of the chaos that's threatened to consume the GOP campaign.