HOUSTON — He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. During Thursday night’s debate in Houston, Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio unleashed a flurry of punches and counterpunches on Donald Trump. In the past, Republicans would drop memorized zingers. But when Trump would channel his quick wit with a sharp retort, they were left stunned and out of ammunition.
Not so with Rubio, who was relentless.
It wasn’t just Rubio. Having finally abandoned their rope-a-dope strategy, both Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz kept The Donald playing defense for most of the night. But it was Rubio who reminded me of Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard—technical boxers who could stun a bigger opponent by unleashing a barrage of attacks.
To be sure, there was no knockout, but Rubio and Cruz held their own, fighting Trump to a draw. This might not sound like much, but it’s a huge improvement.
As noted yesterday right here, Rubio came ready to fight. He had to. My guess is that he accomplished his mission of proving to Republican donors and establishment leaders that he has the toughness to spar with Trump. But conventional wisdom today is that Rubio “won” the debate, and I’m not so sure his punches will redound to his credit with voters.
Part of the reason Rubio was hesitant to take off the gloves (or, in this analogy, is it put on the gloves?) and tangle with Trump to begin with is that fighting Trump means Rubio isn’t playing to his natural strength—which is to be positive and optimistic and poetic and eloquent. Rubio proved his mettle, but he didn’t play to his strengths. Conversely, Ted Cruz’s favored prosecutorial style was a more natural fit for the night. For this reason, I suspect the pundits are selling Cruz short. He also had a good night.
I’m curious to see what polling in a couple of days shows us, but my gut instinct is that this is something Cruz and Rubio should have done months ago. Of course, they were hoping Trump would fade away—or that someone else would do the dirty work for them. What is more, I think it has taken this long for people to figure out how to hold their own against Donald Trump. We saw that Jeb Bush got better at it as the campaign progressed, but by then, Trump had defined and emasculated him.
In a way, Rubio and Cruz had to attack Trump simply to demonstrate toughness—not to score points. So fighting is an end unto itself. But there were a few attacks that I think might resonate if they are repeated. Rubio, for example, raised questions about whether or not Trump is exploiting average Americans (contrary to his image as a champion of “the little guy”) and Cruz hit him on his willingness to cut deals (something that might not play well with GOP primary voters who don’t like crony capitalism).
If nothing else, there is at least now some hope that Rubio and Cruz can go toe-to-toe with Trump. But was it too little, too late? Super Tuesday will tell us a lot about that.