Bush Tumbles, Rubio Soars in Third GOP Debate
Policy + Politics

Bush Tumbles, Rubio Soars in Third GOP Debate

© Rick Wilking / Reuters

There’s an age-old drama about the turning point when the student finally eclipses the teacher. We may have seen a prime example of that during Wednesday night’s third GOP presidential debate when freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) outstripped his one-time mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, possibly spelling the end to Bush’s bid to follow his father and brother into the White House.

The contrast in performances between the two men was so striking that political analysts instantly restored Rubio to the top ranks of the GOP field – alongside billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – while signaling grim prospects for Bush’s once promising campaign.

Related: RNC Chair Accuses CNBC of Media Bias at Contentious GOP Debate

Rubio, 44, a former Florida House speaker and son of working-class Cuban immigrants, had arguably his best night of the campaign season. He showed a dazzling command of economic policy issues and responded skillfully to tough questioning by CNBC moderators as well as a personal attack from Bush regarding his spotty voting record in the Senate. A well-scripted Rubio delivered a strong counterpunch, suggesting that Bush was desperately trying to revive his campaign by going after his one-time friend, rather than addressing more important campaign issues.

Bush, a one-time frontrunner with stronger backing from the Republican business establishment, had another dismal night at the debate lectern, trying to reconnect with a Republican audience that has lost interest in his campaign. While Rubio placed second among the ten candidates in terms of time he had to speak – nine minutes and 52 seconds -- Bush placed ninth, just ahead of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. With Bush under mounting pressure from his financial backers to pick up his game, last night’s performance may have spelled the beginning of the end of his campaign.

“It was obvious to everyone that Rubio won the confrontation with Bush—which Bush initiated,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said today in an interview. “So Rubio’s stock is way up and Bush’s is way down. But there’s another debate on Nov. 10 and more after that…and the actual voting doesn’t start until Feb. 1.”

The conservative media offered a far more damning assessment of Bush’s chances going forward. the National Review stated bluntly that Bush’s campaign “is cooked,” while conservative radio host Erick Erickson said that Bush “needs to start thinking about his future now.”

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Long before Bush formally entered the race, Rubio kicked off his presidential campaign in April with a speech in Miami calling for a “new American century” – and a new generation of leaders.

The youthful politician added, “I’ve heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake and I can make a difference as president.” Those remarks were widely interpreted as a thinly veiled dig at Bush, Rubio’s one-time mentor, who at that time was leading in the polls.

As the story goes, Bush, 62, encouraged Rubio to enter politics in 1998 and run for city commissioner in West Miami. Bush, who served as Florida governor from 1999 to 2007, befriended Rubio and became his sounding board as Rubio pursued a career in the Florida state legislature. That relationship soured after Bush withheld an endorsement during Rubio’s long-shot Senate campaign against former Republican governor Charlie Crist in 2010, according to The New York Times. Rubio won the race, and Bush’s long time protégé became his rival. 

Both Rubio and Bush have been lagging in the polls recently behind Trump and Carson. In the latest New York Times-CBS News national poll, Rubio received 8 percent of the Republican support to 7 percent for Bush. However, as The Washington Post noted, Rubio has demonstrated considerable crossover appeal, meaning he is capable of enlisting the support of mainstream conservatives and deep-pocketed contributors as well as tapping into a deep reservoir of Tea Party anti-government sentiment.

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Meanwhile, Bush has cut his campaign budget by 40 percent and his advisers have identified Rubio as the biggest threat to his campaign’s viability.

That became abundantly obvious last night when Bush attempted to keep alive a discussion of Rubio’s blatant absenteeism from the Senate floor even after Rubio had adroitly finessed a question from moderator Carl Quintanilla about his missed votes. Rubio, who is not seeking a second term in the Senate, blamed the criticism on hostile mainstream media.

"Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work," he added.

Rubio responded that Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, missed plenty of votes while he was campaigning against Barack Obama, and he didn’t recall Bush complaining about that. Rubio said that he had to assume that someone had convinced Bush that it was good politics to go after his one-time friend.

In the end, Rubio took the high road and sounded almost presidential when he said, “I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush. 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.