GOP Debate: Is Tide Turning Against Outsiders?

GOP Debate: Is Tide Turning Against Outsiders?
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BOULDER, Colo.—In a Republican presidential primary race dominated by political outsiders, Wednesday night’s debate may have marked a turning point where established politicians fought back and found moments to shine.

Marco Rubio, the freshman senator from Florida who has been inching up in the polls, gave a winning performance that showed his political agility not only by fending off the most aggressive overtures yet by a key competitor but also in his potential to please multiple GOP constituencies. 

Another first-term senator, Ted Cruz, had a favorable showing, likely boosting his efforts to persuade conservative Republicans fond of non-politicians Donald Trump and Ben Carson to come his way. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, considered a falling GOP star, found time and space to show off his talent for tough talk, reminding establishment-oriented conservatives why they wanted him to run four years ago.

But one government insider failed to distinguish himself—yet again. Jeb Bush, more than anyone, needed a good debate performance after a week of bad headlines and questions about the durability of the candidate and his campaign. But the former Florida governor never found—or took—his moment. 

After three debates and three months with Trump atop the national polls—and just three months before voters weigh in—the pressure is building on mainstream Republicans to find a candidate capable of reuniting the party and taking back the White House. Rubio offered himself up by outperforming Bush, the candidate whose campaign team, network, and money should have kept the young senator, and a host of other candidates, out of the running.

Notably, the two frontrunners for the nomination stayed largely in the background. Trump and Carson, who’ve become rivals since the retired neurosurgeon’s recent gains in the polls against the real estate mogul, didn’t attack each other. In fact, they didn’t really attack anyone. Instead, they appeared content watching their fellow competitors fight for attention on a national stage they have both dominated.

Cruz, who is competing with Carson in Iowa, seized the space to assert himself throughout the debate, bashing the media and the moderators—an approach that wins him favor with the base—and argued he is the only one in the field who has led on issues conservatives care about. 

Over the past week, amid news of staff and spending cuts in his lagging campaign, Bush focused on a new target: his former mentee from the Florida state House. The campaign relished the national media criticism Rubio has been receiving for skipping out on his day job. Rubio has been absent for more Senate votes than any of the four GOP senators running for president, and the Florida Sun-Sentinel came out with a scathing editorial Wednesday morning calling on the hometown senator to resign. Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, sought to capitalize, launching a Twitter account called “@IsMarcoWorking.”

But the publicized strategy seemed to work to Rubio’s benefit. When debate moderators asked him about the newspaper's criticism, Rubio argued it was “evidence of the bias that exists in American media today,” noting Barack Obama and John Kerry also had poor attendance records while running for president but were not attacked for it.  

Bush was eager to engage, but ultimately came out on the losing end.

“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 workweek?  You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”

A prepared Rubio pounced.  Bush, he said, tells voters he's modeling his campaign after John McCain's, including launching a comeback, fighting hard in New Hampshire and even carrying his "own bag at the airport,” Rubio said. “I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. 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 with that, Rubio set the tone for the rest of his night. In addition to inquiries about his attendance record, he also deflected questions about his own personal finance issues, including reports that he mingled campaign and personal money and liquidated his retirement fund, and pivoted to the positive.

“Here's the truth:  I didn't inherit any money,” he said before going into his now-familiar story of being the son of a bartender and a maid.

Earlier, when asked about his Senate record and whether he should “slow down, and at least finish what you start,” the senator made an argument calculated to endear him to anti-establishment voters. “That's an interesting question. That's exactly what the Republican establishment said, too: ‘Why don't you wait in line?’”

With Bush weakened, several contenders are angling to take advantage of the opening. Christie, among them, is hoping strong debate performances coupled with aggressive groundwork in New Hampshire will pay off. The New Jersey governor used the debate to re-establish himself as the straight talker, defending his calls to raise the retirement age for Social Security and cut benefits for wealthy seniors so the fund isn't bankrupted. He looked straight into the camera: “Let me be honest with the people who are watching at home. The government has lied to you, and they have stolen from you.” 

Christie also found a moment to jump in when Bush was asked about fantasy football and online gambling leagues that have come under scrutiny. “Fantasy football! We have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us and we’re talking about fantasy football?”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also hoping for victory in New Hampshire and an opening in the establishment lane, used the debate to criticize the credentials of the GOP field. In a campaign led by political outsiders, the two-term governor and former congressman implored voters to pick someone with his level of experience.

In the undercard debate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also emphasized the need to re-unify the establishment to propel the party through the general election. “I’m tired of losing,” he said. “I’m trying to solve a problem and win an election.”

But no candidate—not even Graham, who is lagging near the bottom of the polls—appeared willing to step aside and coalesce around a candidate. When asked whether the field needed to winnow soon, Graham deflected the question to talk about his New Hampshire-centered campaign.

Carly Fiorina, who boosted her campaign with standout debate performances in the previous forums, didn’t outshine her competitors this time, but continued to make the case for her candidacy.

“I may not be your dream candidate, just yet, but I can assure you: I am Hillary Clinton’s worse nightmare,” she said. “In your heart of hearts, you cannot wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.”

While a small group of contenders had good moments on stage, several campaigns and the Republican National Committee were not happy with the format and line of questioning. “The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

Bush’s campaign manager, Danny Diaz, also complained to producers at CNBC. Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul received the least amount of time to speak.

Later, the Bush campaign tried to look forward, noting the candidate was heading to New Hampshire, a state that has been kind to struggling candidates before.

“We appreciate the opportunity and look forward to future opportunities to discuss the governor’s record,” Diaz told reporters when asked about the debate.

Meanwhile, the Rubio campaign began fundraising off his performance even while the debate took place, asking supporters to chip in $5 to show momentum.

“This is all part of slowly moving up in the process. We’re not going to surge, we’re not going to be in first place or the frontrunner, but we’re going to move up,” said Terry Sullivan, Rubio campaign manager. “It’s checking another box: Can he take a punch and can he handle it?”

Asked about Bush, Sullivan said there was “no need to pile on Governor Bush after his performance tonight.” The interaction between the two Floridians, he said, “speaks for itself.”  

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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