Crown a new prince! Marco Rubio, dragon slayer, badly wounded his chief rival, Jeb Bush, a member of Republican royalty, leaving him limping in the battlefield of presidential politics.
This was the conclusion that emerged from the latest Republican primary debate Wednesday night.
The Florida senator deserved the praise for his unquestionable polish. The headlines for Bush, the former Florida governor, were terrible. His campaign is “not on life support,” Bush maintained to reporters Thursday in New Hampshire. Ouch.
Rubio, in contrast, basked in a marathon set of morning-after TV interviews. His campaign asked elated donors for more money. He was an uncontested winner.
But Rubio, for all his poise, didn’t fully answer one of the key questions he didn’t like Wednesday night. And he deflected another one entirely, relying instead on his tried-and-true personal American Dream story to avoid mustering a direct response.
Asked why he doesn’t resign from the U.S. Senate he dislikes so much, Rubio pivoted to past presidential candidates who also missed lots of votes. Asked if his poor handling of personal finances disqualifies him from running the federal government, Rubio instead told the heart-tugging story of his parents’ humble beginnings.
Both were deft responses and trademark Rubio. But they might get more difficult for him to deliver as his star in the presidential race rises — even if his incomplete answers don’t ultimately hurt him in the theater of politics.
“Yes, it gets harder to dodge questions when the format permits strong follow-ups and there are only two or three people on stage,” David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in New York and an expert on presidential debates, told the Miami Herald in an email. “That isn’t to say that the follow-ups are always successful or that candidates aren’t adept at answering the questions they want rather than the questions they’re asked.
“Indirection and substitution are effective strategies that sometimes work very well, as did Senator Rubio’s riposte to Governor Bush’s chiding last night.”
His campaign noted Thursday that Rubio has been asked about both his missed votes and his finances in the past. He told CNN last week that he wants to be president so Senate votes can be “meaningful” again; he told Fox News in July that he’s proud of his current finances and it’s his record on financial and tax policy in the Florida House and Senate that voters should consider.
Rubio’s poor Senate attendance is relevant not because he’s not in Washington during the campaign but because he missed a lot of work even before he was a presidential candidate — and because he’s spoken with so much disdain about his comfortable taxpayer-funded job. Voters can’t stand Congress, which hasn’t been getting much of anything done, but Rubio’s absenteeism plays into the criticism most often leveled against him: that he’s more interested in advancing his political ambitions than in serving the public.
Though Rubio didn’t address that point during the debate, he appeared intent to counter the narrative in some of the TV interviews Thursday morning.
To NBC’s Today Show: “For me, it’s an incredible honor to serve in the United States Senate. I enjoy very much to serve the people of Florida.”
To CNN’s New Day: “I don’t like missing votes, I hate it. . . . But here’s what I would hate more, and that is to wake up on the first Wednesday of November in 2016 to the news that Hillary Clinton has been elected president of the United States.”
None of the interviews tackled Rubio’s finances, which have plagued him for years.
Neither Rubio’s personal spending on Republican Party of Florida credit cards — nor his former Tallahassee house shared with former lawmaker David Rivera that briefly went into foreclosure, nor his second mortgage on his West Miami home — ever got in the way of Rubio’s political success. He uses his past student-loan debt to make himself relatable to voters, and he cracks jokes on the campaign trail about the brand-new fishing boat he bought with royalties he made from his 2012 political memoir, An American Son.
What CNBC moderator Becky Quick tried to get Rubio to explain Wednesday night, though, was his most recent questionable decision: to liquidate a $68,000 retirement account, incurring probably about $24,000 in taxes and fees, despite having a $174,000-a-year Senate salary and receiving more than $30,000 in book royalties in 2014. He had already made more than $1 million from it.
Rubio has said he needed a new refrigerator, and an air-conditioning repair, and more money for his four children’s private-school tuition. His explanation Wednesday didn’t even attempt to go that far.
“This debate needs to be about the men and women across this country that are struggling on a daily basis to provide for their families the better future that we’ve always said this country is all about,” he said.
Then, after a follow-up question about his lucrative memoir, he made another classic Rubio move and cracked a joke.
“It’s available in paperback,” he said, “if you’re interested in buying my book.”
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.