Jeb Bush failed to distinguish himself yet again in the third Republican presidential debate, missing a crucial opportunity to energize his campaign at the very moment when Establishment donors are making final decisions about where to put their money.
Making matters doubly worse for the once-inevitable GOP nominee, Sen. Marco Rubio offered himself up as a credible alternative for the Establishment’s cash with his polished, knowledgeable responses, his ability to personalize issues, and a decisive smackdown of Bush when the former Florida governor came after him.
Bush, with a slightly pleading tone, recited his policies as if reading from an extensive white paper churned out by a boiler room of wonky nerds holed up at his campaign headquarter in Miami.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich also may have made some progress in the Establishment sweepstakes, delivering a passionate performance and an aggressive sales job of his record. But he’s achieved that before, and it hasn’t done much for him in the polls.
Carly Fiorina, another potential Establishment choice, sounded tinny and unremarkable. Her polls will go nowhere but down, since that’s where they eventually went even after her stellar performances in two previous debate.
Rubio calmly made his case, smartly parrying attacks from the other candidates and the obviously anti-GOP CNBC panel that hosted the Boulder, Colo., contest. He didn’t look any younger than he has before, but he had a mature, reassuring manner that contrasted clearly with Bush’s awkwardness and Kasich’s sometimes near-histrionics.
Unlike Bush, who stuck to the facts, Rubio never forgot to relate his ideas to the average people he says his plans are designed to help.
“My mother’s on Medicare and Social Security,” Rubio said. “I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother.” Rubio also was sure to mention, as he always does, that his dad was a bartender, leaving unsaid the contrast with Bush’s father.
But “the guy who does my dry cleaning” would also benefit from a Rubio presidency, the senator said.
A leaden Bush declared, “I have a concrete plan,” jabbering on with some perhaps solid policy details, if anyone was still listening.
“Our monetary policy, our tax policy, regulatory policy needs to be radically changed so we can create high sustained growth for income to rise,” Bush said. After a yawn, one might ask, for whose income to rise?
But the worst moment came early, when Bush assailed Rubio for his absentee senate record — and Rubio dismissed the criticism as the canned stunt that it was.
“I’m a constituent of the senator and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work,” Bush whined, as if he had needed his senator’s help fixing a broken traffic light. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French work week?”
Bush had ripped into both the French and his opponent with a single salvo. Thought he’d done pretty good. What he actually did was launch an attack Rubio was surely prepared for.
“I get to respond, right?” Rubio asked calmly.
“You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling after?” Rubio said.
“He wasn’t my senator,” responded Bush, sensing the danger.
Rubio ignored him.
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
And that, everyone knew, was true.
Rubio went on to take the high road, refraining as he mostly has from returning Bush’s increasingly desperate attacks against his onetime friend.
“I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush,” Rubio said. “I’m not running against Governor Bush, I’m not running against anyone on this stage. I’m running for president because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies of Barack Obama.”
That sounded far more presidential than Bush’s sniping.
Rubio still looks barely out of his political diapers, and he can sound a little tinny and whiney himself. But with few to no other obvious alternatives, the checks written by the Establishment may soon be bearing his name as the moderate wing of the Party unites to try to stop Donald Trump.
This post also appears in PoliZette.