After several months of floating just below the radar, Senator Marco Rubio is shooting towards the top of the Republican presidential candidate pack after a solid third performance in the CNBC debate on October 28th. His surge in popularity in states like New Hampshire, where he tripled his poll numbers, and nationwide, where he remains in third with almost 12%, is undeniable.
Rubio’s rise has not come without added scrutiny from rival campaigns and the media, however. The first sign that his fellow Republican contenders weren’t content to sit back and watch him rise was when Jeb Bush’s campaign leaked a memo stating that Rubio is a “risky bet,” implying that Rubio failed to pass muster when the 2012 Romney campaign vetted him for the vice presidency. The idea is that if Romney passed on Rubio because of vetting issues, surely Americans should do so as well.
This claim is almost certainly false. First, Beth Myers (a former IOP fellow here), one of Romney’s top advisers and the person who vetted vice presidential candidates for Romney’s 2012 bid, responded to the Bush campaign’s memo by saying she “found nothing that disqualified [Rubio] from serving as VP.” Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, also pushed back on Jeb’s narrative."Our vetting team was confident that, if chosen, Sen. Rubio's legislative record and high personal character would have been a great asset to Gov. Romney,” Rhoades said. "To say otherwise is utterly dishonest,” he added. Neither Myers nor Rhoades had any incentive from Rubio or his campaign to make these statements: Rhoades has yet to declare his support for any 2016 candidates, while Myers has signed up to advise for none other than Jeb Bush. Even so, both defended Rubio, showing that Bush's accusation was a baseless stretch from a flailing campaign— and that while Jeb channels his inner Bob the Builder with the “Jeb Can Fix It” tour, Rubio is continuing to beat him where it matters.
Jeb was far from the only candidate to criticize Rubio during the third Republican debate. Donald Trump has literally been turning the heat up on Rubio by taking him to task for...sweating. In fact, Trump has attacked Rubio at least 8 different ways for his tendency to sweat, including shipping his campaign a 24-pack of Trump Water.
These attacks are unlikely to stick. After all, the mocking Rubio endured after his famous drink of water during his response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address has long since evaporated. In fact, Rubio deftly turned the situation to his advantage by selling thousands of water bottles and raising over $100,000 in the weeks after his SOTU response. Rubio still makes light of his thirst to this day, with many of his campaign videos concluding with him waiting for the viewer to subscribe to his YouTube channel while he drinks water.
Not all of the criticism thrown Rubio’s way has been this shallow. Critics have recently started resurfacing an attack that has previously been dismissed by focusing on Rubio’s usage of a charge card for supposedly personal reasons while with the Florida Republican Party, where he was Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. Some have claimed that he was irresponsible with the GOP’s account. However, The Washington Post examined all of the data, and concluded that “Rubio’s carefully worded explanation doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Geppetto Checkmark, but it is accurate enough that it does not warrant even a single Pinocchio.” In addition, the Post stated that, “a mountain’s been made out of molehill, by the media and Rubio’s opponents.” In fact, Rubio has already been cleared by a Florida state commission of potential ethics violations from his charge card usage in 2012. As Politico’s Glenn Thrush tweeted; “So far the Rubio Amex stuff, meh.”
Rubio’s opponents have also turned to the present, and are slamming him for his current voting record in the Senate. Rubio effectively parried this when Jeb brought it up in the most recent debate, and in doing so, Rubio almost ended Jeb’s campaign by using his campaign’s logic against him:
Over the last few weeks, I've listened to Jeb as he walked around the country and said that you're modeling your campaign after John McCain...You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you're now modeling after?...I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. 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 you...my campaign is going to be about the future of America, it's not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush...I'm not running against anyone on this stage. I'm running for president because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies of Barack Obama.
When the story of the 2016 campaign is written, I believe this will be one of the many turning points. Rubio’s ability to reject Jeb’s criticism and simultaneously ding the media demonstrates his capacity to dominate in debates, a proven testing ground for candidates in the past.
Rubio also incorporated a response to the editorial board of Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, whose call for him to resign due to missed votes prompted Bush to attack Rubio, with Rubio saying:
Back in 2004, one of my predecessors to the Senate by the name of Bob Graham, a Democrat, ran for president missing over 30 percent of his votes. I don't recall them calling for his resignation. Later that year, in 2004, John Kerry ran for president missing close to 60 to 70 percent of his votes. I don't recall the Sun -- in fact, the Sun-Sentinel endorsed him. In 2008, Barack Obama missed 60 or 70 percent of his votes, and the same newspaper endorsed him again. So this is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement.
Despite all of the attention that Rubio’s voting record has received, he has missed only 34% of Senate votes this year. When Florida Senator Bob Graham was running for President on the Democratic ticket in 2004, he had missed 37% of senate votes from January to October 2003, yet there were no calls for his resignation. Throughout Rubio’s time in the Senate, he has missed 176 votes out of 1,434. 99 of these votes are from this year, meaning that half of the votes he missed were while he was also running for President, an understandably time-consuming endeavor.
But even if the perception that Rubio hates the senate matched with reality, would it make sense for three U.S. Senators to have endorsed him since the CNBC debate? Would ten members of the House of Representatives have endorsed him, including two this past week? Would the majority of Republican staffers in the House and Senate predict that he will be the Republican nominee?
Rubio’s momentum continued when Paul Singer, a Republican mega-donor and one of the strongest proponents of gay marriage, announced his support for the senator. This poses a huge problem to Jeb, whose chief advantage has so far been his immense financial war chest.
When I took a group of College Republicans downtown to see Rubio after the debate that sparked this momentum, I asked Illinois Congressman Darin LaHood (one of Rubio’s Illinois campaign co-chairs) why more young members of congress weren’t endorsing Rubio; he told me to wait and see. I can say that it was well worth the wait. With the recent endorsements—public and private alike—and the consistently commanding debate performances, I expect Rubio’s rise to continue and exceed expectations.
The image featured in this article was taken by Gage Skidmore. The original image can be found here.