Marco Rubio shines at Jeb Bush’s expense in Republican debate

Analysis: Florida senator delivers knockout counterpunch in bruising third debate

Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush (left) and Donald Trump look on during a break in the Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush (left) and Donald Trump look on during a break in the Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

 

The third debate in the Republican White House race was dominated not by the runaway leaders – outsiders Donald Trump and retired surgeon Ben Carson – but by the trailing establishment runners looking to best their closest rivals.

In the heat of the TV debate, Trump and Carson chose not to attack each other, leaving the stage in Boulder, Colorado, to the contenders vying for the hearts and minds of the party’s more moderate voters.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush had a dreadful night, failing to stop his precipitous slide from being, this time last year, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. At a moment when a debate allowed the other candidates to shine as alternatives to the Trump and Carson, Bush was left flat-footed and outmanoeuvred.

That his most damaging moment of the debate came at the hands of a man 18 years his junior whom he mentored in Florida proved that Bush is struggling to follow where his brother and father succeeded.

“What is it, like a French work week where you have three days to show up?” Bush said, needling Marco Rubio on his Senate voting record.

Rubio (44), the Cuban-American senator and the most skilled debater on the dais, deftly counterattacked, pointing to the hypocrisy of Bush not questioning John McCain’s voting record as a senator from Arizona when he ran for the White House in 2008.

“The only reason 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,” the freshman Florida senator responded.

Lacklustre campaign

At 7 per cent, Bush is running fourth in the polls and trailing Rubio by two points (well behind Trump’s 26.8 per cent and Carson’s 22 per cent) but the Florida senator should extend his lead and could start seriously challenging them after his performance on Wednesday night.

He topped the debate clock, speaking longest of 11 candidates and cleverly turning “gotcha” questions to his advantage to tell his from-the-bootstraps personal back story as the son of a barman and a maid.

The debate brought withering putdowns and acerbic exchanges as the CNBC business network moderators decided not to raise serious economic issues for discussion but draw out angry tit-for-tat moments perfectly designed for the short attention spans of the social media age.

All in all, it reflected badly on the Republicans, although one of the candidates milked it, scoring a big point on the night.

Ted Cruz, the outspoken conservative and thorn in the side of establishment Republicans in the senate, became the unlikely voice of reason when he queried the line of questions from the moderators.

“This is not a cage match,” he said. At times it turned into one, as Trump baited Ohio governor John Kasich, another candidate trying to take a lead in the establishment “lane” of the Republican race.

“Folks, we gotta wake up! We cannot elect somebody who does not know how to do the job,” the career politician told Republican voters as he lashed out at Trump and challenged Carson’s plan for a flat tax.

Lehman Brothers

“Then his poll numbers tanked. That’s why he’s on the end [of the stage],” said the reality TV star to laughs from the audience.

Rubio’s standout performance will leave him nowhere near the end but front and centre at the next debate on November 10th.