Florida Senator Marco Rubio may have yet to win a state in the Republican presidential nomination fight, but he scored a key win in what will probably go down as the most important primary debate of the cycle.
Much was riding on the CNN-Telemundo debate because it was positioned right before the Super Tuesday contests on March 1st. Not only are Tuesday’s contests the first time multiple states will be in play on the same day, but if Donald Trump’s pathway to the nomination is going to be stymied, it has to begin then.
As expected, all eyes were on Trump, but if the media and pundits were looking for anything, it was who else on the stage is best equipped to take Trump on one on one. In essence, last night’s debate was an audition for who should take on Trump, and Rubio nailed the part.
Not once did Rubio ever hesitate when taking on Trump directly. He swung hard at every opportunity provided to him, but more importantly, Rubio didn’t just show he could throw punches last night, he showed that he could deliver a blow with a smile on his face, a skill his counter part, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, has yet to develop.
Rubio hit Trump on his key issue in the race, illegal immigration. Earlier in the week the New York Times published an article that stated that Trump hired foreign guest workers to work on his properties instead of Americans. It was a critique that Rubio hit the frontrunner with repeatedly.
Later, when responding to Trump’s plan to build a wall on along the southern border, Rubio quipped, “If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.” Trump tried to dismiss it saying, “Such a cute sound bite.”
Rubio then said it was not a sound bite and encouraged people to go online and check it out. Then he added, “The second thing, about the trade war — I don’t understand, because your ties and the clothes you make are made in Mexico and in China. So you’re gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits.”
Rubio and Trump then went back and forth, with Rubio repeatedly asking why he didn’t make them in America. It’s an argument that Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich have tried and failed to levy against Trump in earlier debates, but on the less congested debate stage, Rubio was able to able to make it stick.
Rubio was the clear victor in the first half of the debate. It was unanimous among the reporters following along with the debate on Twitter. And before you say that Twitter is no way to gauge a debate, to understand just how well Rubio was doing, two of Cruz’s biggest backers, Glenn Beck and Bob Vander Plaats publically praised Rubio’s debate performance.
Time after time, Rubio seemed to have impeccable timing and knew exactly what to say in response to Trump. When debating foreign policy, and specifically the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, not only did Rubio emphatically stand firm behind Israel, but he also got the best of Trump who claimed he wanted to mediate an agreement between the two sides.
“Have you ever negotiated with terrorists,” Rubio pointedly asked Trump.” After Trump quipped that Rubio is not a negotiator, Rubio smartly responded by telling Trump that this was not some sort of real estate deal.
As for Cruz, he was overshadowed during the early stages of the debate. He missed some opportunities to engage Trump in a way that would help him in advance of the Super Tuesday contests by feeling the need to restate his positions on a particular issue instead of using his time to aggressively challenge the frontrunner.
Some may find it sad that its bad for a candidate to answer a question directly, but no reporter worth their weight is going to write an article on the eve of Super Tuesday about what Cruz said about Supreme Court Justices. He needed to be able to convey that message in a way that made it clear to viewers what it is he looks for in a potential justice but also explain why Trump should not be trusted to make a such an important decision.
Cruz proved in the debate that he is capable of prosecuting Trump on the debate stage, but he doesn’t come off as likeable when doing it. Cruz seemed focused on technicalities of the subject being debated while Rubio was able to make his point against Trump in a way that was easy to understand, and in doing so, he made it look like it never got personal.
Rubio proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you are looking for a candidate to go toe to toe with Trump, he’s the best equipped for the battle. It was the way in which he engaged Trump on the debate stage that made him the superior candidate to Cruz. Rubio had the look of an eager, feisty fighter who was always ready to engage. Cruz, on the other hand, was the bland prosecutor you agreed with on the substance, but never could warm up to as a person.
As for Trump, it was the first time in a debate that two candidates proved him to be an inadequate frontrunner. Nobody knocked him out on Thursday night, but it was clear that he wasn’t the winner of the debate.