Marco Rubio won the first GOP presidential debate on Thursday night. He was confident, energetic, eloquent, knowledgeable, and figured out the way to handle Donald Trump. The importance of debates is vastly overrated, and it's a long, long time before the first caucus in Iowa, but Rubio proved he belongs in the first tier of presidential contenders, and will be in this race for the long haul.
The debate itself was entertaining, combative, and had several gripping moments—and not all of them involved Trump. This field is much stronger than the one in 2012. John Kasich and Chris Christie gave strong performances. Fans of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will also have been pleased. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were fine, and Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee played themselves. The standout from the 5 o'clock debate, Carly Fiorina, clearly deserves a place on the main stage.
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But it was Rubio who emerged victorious. He made the most of each question, demonstrating not only a grasp of detail but also an ability to deliver his views cogently and succinctly. He displayed empathy. And he seized an opportunity to distinguish himself from Donald Trump: not by engaging the populist billionaire directly, but by pointing out that Trump donated to his primary opponent, then-establishment-Republican Charlie Crist, in 2010.
Rubio has never been a poll leader, and indeed he's seen some decline in his numbers, as others have, since Trump began enacting the revenge of the radical middle earlier this summer. My theory has always been that Rubio won't break out until later in the campaign, sometime in November or December when real people who live normal lives actually start paying attention to the race. His performance Thursday gives me no reason to modify my theory. In a change election, voters have displayed a preference for freshness, youth, optimism, likability, and approachability. Any of the candidates could strive to acquire these qualities. Marco Rubio already has them.