The widespread assumption among political insiders is that in the crunch time when things really matter Republican voters will abandon the frontrunners for candidates with experience in public office. That hasn't happened yet. But if it does, Rubio and Cruz are clearly better positioned than anyone else.
With his smiling demeanor, unhesitant phrasing and ease at pivoting from one point to where he wants to go, Rubio has become a star in debate formats. He parried his first question, about reducing benefits, to how his modest-income immigrant family achieved the American dream; how higher minimum wages accelerate automation; his wider economic program; and the need for vocational education ("We need more welders and less philosophers"), all in 333 words.
Asked about automation he said it took 75 years for the telephone but only one year for Candy Crush to get 100 million users -- a signal that he's in touch with contemporary tech -- and then referenced his plans to reshape higher education, which has been performing especially badly of late.
Later Rubio defended the per-child credit in his tax plan, which has been attacked by some conservatives as ineffective for growth, by saying his most important role was as a parent and, in a nod to cultural conservatives, "You can't have a strong nation without strong values, and no one is born with strong values."
When Rand Paul challenged his plan as non-conservative, Rubio deftly segued to Paul's weakness, saying that he "is a committed isolationist" and, citing threats from "radical jihadists," Iran and China, "we can't even have an economy if we're not safe."
He returned to foreign policy on his next response to Paul, much later, by calling Vladimir Putin a "gangster" who "understands only geopolitical strength," hailing Israel's democracy and arguing that radical Islamists who don't want girls to go to school are on the march.
Near the end of the debate, Rubio interjected briefly on how big government had strengthened -- not weakened -- the big banks and how the Dodd-Frank law "codified too-big-to-fail." He was echoing a point made by Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz, but with an especially memorable phrase. "You know what (the big banks) say to people with a wink and a nod? We are so big, we are so important that if we get in trouble, the government has to bail us out."
How would he stand up to the more experienced Hillary Clinton? "This election is about the future, and the Democratic Party and the political left has no idea about the future," he said. "If I am the nominee, they will be the party of the past and we will be the party of the 21st century." Rubio's sunny youthful demeanor and his capacity to discuss policy knowledgeably leads many Republicans to conclude he'd be their strongest candidate against Hillary Clinton.
He also was lucky not to be called on (or smart not to volunteer) in the argument between Trump and Bush on immigration or in response to Ted Cruz's denunciation of the (Rubio-supported) sugar-subsidy program. That luck may not hold next time.
Cruz got to talk more than Rubio or anyone else and spoke effectively as well. He was on strong ground in arguing that illegal immigration drives down some wages and that "the rich do great with big government" -- a great theme for Republicans next fall. He adopted Walter Bagehot's 1873 recipe for banks during a panic: large loans at high interest. But he sounded high-risk when he said the money supply "should be tied to a stable level of gold." The gold standard has not been a winning issue since the 1920s.
"I believe that 2016 will be an election like 1980," Cruz said, "that we will win by following Reagan's admonition to paint in bold colors, not pale pastels." But 2016 is not 1980, and sometimes your colors are too bold.
Of course other candidates remain in the race, and Trump and Carson, though they didn't dominate the dialogue, continue to lead in the polls. But it looks like the choice may boil down to Rubio or Cruz.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), where this article first appeared, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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