For the first GOP presidential nomination debate, I tweeted my assessment of the candidates’ performance from strongest to weakest. I came to this conclusion by judging which candidates best helped themselves. Because each candidate faces different challenges, what each must do to raise his profile varies. My assessment of the best performers and my rationale follows, beginning with the strongest:
1st Place: Senator Marco Rubio
Rubio entered the race with one of the strongest announcements of candidacy of any of the Republican contenders. In it, Rubio speaks passionately about his love of America, his duty to serve her, and his commitment to moving the country forward by tackling some of the trenchant political problems the nation faces.
Since his announcement, he has weathered scurrilous attacks from the New York Times about his wife’s speeding tickets and about his modest home. Besides these simplistic criticisms, though, Rubio has run a very effective and substantive campaign, avoiding gaffes and has maintaining an optimistic, energetic and thoughtful stance thus far. In an address before the Council of Foreign Relations, Rubio impressed attendees and pundits with his encyclopedic knowledge of foreign affairs, and with his clear-eyed prescriptions for future American foreign policy objectives.
Unfortunately, none of this has translated into bumper campaign funds. The Rubio campaign has been lost in the shuffle among strong contenders better connected to substantial donors. To make matters worse, Florida law precludes a candidate from appearing twice on a ballot, so Mr. Rubio forfeits his Senate seat by running for president. For Rubio, as for the other candidates, the nomination debates represent the greatest opportunity to attract positive attention, money and momentum.
In such a talented field of candidates, Rubio needed to do three things to win the debates: First, he needed to remain substantive, positive and passionate. Second, Rubio needed to stand out from field as offering something unique that will lead the party to success in the general election. Third, Rubio needed to appear less robotic–more human. To the third point, his smooth style puts Republicans, like me, at ease. I don’t worry that he will say something regretful. On the other hand, I have heard him criticized as being too smooth–too savvy–unrelatable.
By my assessment, Rubio won the debate by achieving each of these goals, however, to varying degrees of success. Rubio handled each question directed to him with impeccable poise and with optimism. He demonstrated his usual command of issues, and his refreshing willingness to answer questions directly, even before he’d pivot. When prompted to break with his political mentor, Governor Jeb Bush, Rubio wisely refused the bait. Bush, who offers much of what Rubio does, except in regards to age and executive experience, provided a less commanding performance (which I will discuss later), allowing Rubio the ability to stand apart from his most similar contender. Finally, Rubio’s wit, particularly his jab at the Democrat Party’s difficulty fielding a single good candidate, served to humanize him.
He easily achieved the first objective, but only moderately achieved the other two because the distraction of Donald Trump, and the plethora of candidates, muted Rubio’s chances to outshine some of his other competitors. Still, though, Rubio’s thoughtful campaign continued to impress on the debate stage. For the first debate, avoiding a meltdown can be as advantageous as achieving campaign goals. By my estimation, Mr. Rubio served his cause well.