The stakes were highest for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush going into the third GOP face-off in Colorado. His campaign, once expected to be such a fundraising and networking juggernaut it’d quickly squeeze other candidates out of the race, has suffered sinking poll numbers and rising donor doubts. It has never quite recovered from early stumbles on easily anticipated questions on the family foreign policy legacy, and a recent drastic restructuring signalled to observers and supporters a free fall.
But the biggest enthusiasm gap Bush faces seems to be his own. On the debate stage, standing toe-to-toe with the ascendent and energetic Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush seemed more like the tired, older Richard Nixon to Rubio’s John F. Kennedy.
In a limp effort, Bush went after Rubio’s absences from the Senate, including on defense, cybersecurity, and intelligence policy. Rubio, at the ready, snapped back.
“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 work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?” Bush said. “You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job. There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well, they’re looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.”
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” said Rubio, noting that Bush has been comparing his campaign to the Arizona Republican senator’s 2008 bid. “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.”
Throughout the campaign, Bush has made exasperated remarks that seem to describe his last name and its associated expectations for the White House as a burden rather than an asset.
“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, I don’t want any part of it,” Bush said at a South Carolina town hall Saturday. “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
Bush has yet to shed the albatross of his brother President George W. Bush’s national security record, going back and forth on whether he would’ve invaded Iraq and whether the war left the U.S. or Iraq better off.
The former governor has been confounded by frontrunners Donald Trump and now, neurosurgeon Ben Carson. But in part due to the noise of Trump and Carson, whose national security platform consists of “leadership as our strategy and strength as our policy,” Rubio with foreign policy experience and a poignant personal narrative has managed a slow and steady rise through the ranks below.
During the debate, so little was said on national security and foreign policy that New Jersey Chris Christie exclaimed, “We have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?!” Neither the candidates or moderators picked up that ball, including Rubio, though an opportunity play to his strength.
But he also didn’t have to — his moment was a counterattack on Bush.
“I didn’t inherit any money. My dad was a bartender, my mother was a maid…early in my marriage, explaining to my wife why someone named Sallie Mae was taking $1,000 out of our bank account every month,” Rubio said, with his chubby-cheeked grin. It wasn’t the first time he’s used the line, but it got laughs, as opposed to Bush’s awkward quip he’d give a “warm kiss” to any Democrat he found who would cut spending.
Bush is certainly not the first candidate to go negative against a competitor, even in this debate. He has the money and infrastructure to remain in the race for the long haul, and the Republican Party is desperate to find a nominee whose last name isn’t Carson or Trump to stand a chance in the general election against the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But he has also pledged to run on a more optimistic Republican message, and his discomfort was apparent as he engaged Rubio. The shift in strategy managed to make him look small, despite towering above his podium and Rubio, and left the high road for Rubio to focus his fire on Clinton.
While Bush focused on Rubio, Rubio went with Benghazi and the “mainstream media.”
He exuded the confidence — if not yet substantiated — that he’ll be the one standing opposite Clinton when there are only two left on stage.