Marco Rubio has been playing the long game as a presidential candidate — not getting into fights, not trying to shove himself into the daily news stories, just sticking to his themes and strengths.
If his strategy is sound — and we won’t know until votes start getting cast — Wednesday night’s CNBC debate will mark the moment it began paying off big time. And if he ends up the nominee, it will be the moment people will say he made his move from the outside.
It wouldn’t be right to say that Rubio totally dominated — both Ted Cruz and Chris Christie made real splashes, too — but he put on quite a show.
His extraordinary preparation and message discipline showed, as did his understanding of the Republican voting coalition. Over the past few days he has been hammered by the Florida press in particular for missing Senate votes, and he knew he would get questioned on it — and when he was, in a tone of naked hostility by CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla, he pounced.
He pointed out that the Florida newspaper that had called for his resignation said nothing about previous Democratic senators in the state who had missed more votes than he while running for other offices. He called the attack “evidence of the bias that exists in American media today” in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone that immediately drew Republicans to his side.
And then came the evening’s great coup. Jeb Bush, his Florida frenemy, decided to jump in on CNBC’s side to complain that as a constituent he didn’t think he was getting his money’s worth from Sen. Rubio.
Rubio quickly reminded viewers Bush had supported Sen. John McCain and added, “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s voting record.” Rubio added sadly: “The only reason you’re doing it is that we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me will help you.”
It was gasp-inducing without being nasty or even all that confrontational. And if Bush, who has fallen into the low single digits in the polls, is teetering on the edge, Rubio’s meticulous counterstrike may have been the blow that does Bush in.