Saturday night, Marco Rubio endured what is probably the worst exchange in the history of presidential debates, in which he repeated a near-verbatim scripted sound-bite in response to being attacked for only repeating scripted sound-bites, in a way that seemed to pull back the curtain on his entire persona. But Rubio was not the only victim here. His advisers still have to put on a brave face and explain why Rubio won. A few distinct lines of defense emerged:
1. There is no such thing as a failed criticism of President Obama. Rubio spokesperson Todd Harris: “We took the fight to President Obama. The media may not like it, but you know what? We’re going to do the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day.” Republican consultant Rick Wilson: “Four times Rubio reminded you how much you hate that son of a bitch Barack Obama. If you are a regular Republican voter, that is a message you are amenable to.” If Rubio simply offered up a verbatim attack on Obama in response to every question — Are you too inexperienced? What is your health care plan? Would you prefer regular or decaf? — it would be a win.
2. His opponents are all pathetic. Harris: “I don’t think anything happened last night that is going to fundamentally change the trajectory of this race. The governors are all on either life support or borrowed time.” Maybe if Rubio had been completely exposed a month ago, he’d be in trouble, but now it’s too late to do anything about it because the only viable alternatives are Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
3. Rubio won because he did not literally die. Harris: “Chris Christie had one singular goal heading into the debate, which was to leave a body on the floor. He took his best shot, and he utterly failed.” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant: “We came into this debate saying that the goal was to get through it, knowing that you have a bunch of candidates who are in a fight for their life. The other candidates came into this debate needing to knock Marco out and have a moment. They failed to knock Marco out, and the best moments of the debate belonged to Marco.” And Harris again: “What Gov. Christie was trying to do was to knock Marco out, to kill him dead. He took his best shot, and he failed.” Even if Rubio collapsed to the ground in the middle of Christie’s attack and was wheeled out of the debate hall by emergency medical technicians to a hospital, the exchange would be a win for Rubio as long as he fulfilled the campaign’s goal for him to remain alive.
4. Besides that one epic humiliation that exposed him forever, the rest of the debate was fine. Talk-show host and Rubio enthusiast Hugh Hewitt: “I’m a contrarian on Rubio. He won all of that debate, except those three minutes. That will push him back. But he had a terrific second half. And I think he’ll get the bronze come Tuesday night.” Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?