DES MOINES, Iowa — If Marco Rubio is rising in Iowa, as some recent polls suggest, the final debate before Monday’s caucuses should only help solidify his third place position – or perhaps propel him even higher.
Rubio didn’t necessarily hit a home run in a Trump-less Fox News-hosted debate that was at times a snoozer, but he did stand out above the rest of the pack. Like always, Rubio was smooth, passionate and often substantive, but most importantly he came across as likeable. His likeability factor stood in stark contrast to the debate’s main loser, Ted Cruz. (RELATED: Donald Trump Is A Political Genius For The Ages)
In past debates, Cruz scored points by attacking the debate moderators, but his attempt to do so Thursday fell completely flat.
“I would note that the last four questions have been ‘Rand, please attack Ted,’ `Marco, please attack Ted,’ `Chris, please attack Ted,’ `Jeb, please attack Ted,'” Cruz said at one point to boos, which seemed to be directed at him for sounding like a whiner, not at the very able moderators for supposedly asking unfair questions.
Moderator Chris Wallace shot back, “It’s a debate, sir.”
Cruz then replied with a further whine and a joke that fell completely flat.
“A debate is a policy issue, but I will say this, gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage,” he said, alluding to Donald Trump’s decision not to attend the debate.
Rubio seized on Cruz’s not-so-endearing moment with a charming reply that garnered laughs from the crowed: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
For good or bad, debates are often won and lost with lines — and moments — like these.
Rubio also often weaved asides to his faith into many of his answers — a big plus in Iowa — but he did get into a little trouble when he was asked a question about his position on immigration. Fox News decided to use video montages at this debate in their questioning and one such montage showed Rubio seemingly flip-flopping on his immigration stance through the years.
Rubio replied to the video dagger reasonably well, but what perhaps saved him during this segment of the debate was that Cruz was also hit with a video montage which showed him back in 2013 seemingly supporting a pathway to legalization during the Gang of Eight immigration debate.
This line of questioning was much worse for Cruz because Rubio is already branded as a candidate who would be more lenient on illegal immigrants, so showing a video clip of him back in 2009 or 2010 saying he opposes a pathway to citizenship doesn’t really do much to change the public’s perception of him, at least as far as the substance of the issue goes. If you are a voter who can’t stand the concept of a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants, you were already not going to support Marco Rubio. (RELATED: Don’t Count The ‘Establishment’ Out Quite Yet)
But the video montage of Cruz testifying before the Senate that he was open to a pathway to legalization is potentially far worse. Cruz presents himself now as an immigration hawk. He claims that his previous statements in support of legalization were part of a political gambit to actually kill the Gang of Eight bill that provided a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens.
But given the words voters saw him say on screen, many may find that explanation hard to believe. Even worse for Cruz, Rand Paul chimed in to claim Cruz absolutely once supported a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and that the Texas senator has an “authenticity problem.”
“The bill would involve legalization. He can’t have it both ways,” Paul said. “What is particularly insulting, though, he is the king of saying, ‘oh, you’re for amnesty, everybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz,’ but it’s a falseness.”
Many Cruz foes have attacked the Texas senator for being “false” and “inauthentic,” and if the charge can be made to stick, it has the potential to severely harm his campaign.Besides Rubio, the other winner of the night was probably Donald Trump. Trump’s decision to not attend the debate may prove to be a wise one considering Fox News’ use of video in its questioning. The pool of unflattering video of Donald Trump is very, very deep.
Most of the other candidates performed reasonably well, more or less. Paul may have helped his position in Iowa by hewing more towards his libertarian roots. Carson may have hurt his position in the Hawkeye State — and elsewhere — by getting such little airtime and not capitalizing on the little time he had.
It will not be a debate long remembered, but if it has an effect, it will be mainly to the benefit of Rubio and to the detriment of Cruz.