The Marco Rubio debate moment that worries Democrats

When Marco Rubio cast the election as a 'generational choice,' he took a page out of the Obama playbook to portray himself as the candidate of future. It could work.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida appears during the Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.

“There is no question that [Marco] Rubio is the Republican that Democrats fear most.”

Those words, written by former top Obama political aide Dan Pfeiffer before Tuesday night’s Republican debate, are truer than ever after the debate.

Here’s the moment that crystallized the point: Senator Rubio was presented with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s credentials – an “impressive résumé,” said Fox Business moderator Maria Bartiromo – and then asked how he can compete. Rubio didn't miss a beat.

“This next election is actually a generational choice – a choice about what kind of nation we will be in the 21st century," Rubio said. 

Rubio, the youngest candidate on stage and a generation younger than Mrs. Clinton, followed with his own version of “hope and change.” America is a “special country,” he said, one where “anyone from anywhere can achieve anything, a nation that's been a force for good on this planet.”

Rubio then painted a bleak picture of life today: hard-working Americans “living paycheck to paycheck,” the nation facing “humiliation” abroad. His prescription for the future was left vague, but so was hope and change. As with Obama eight years ago, voters can project whatever they want onto this young, charismatic, ethnic minority, first-term senator.

In his first presidential run, first-term Senator Obama was making the exact same argument against likely Republican nominee John McCain.

“He is clinging to the policies of the past, and we are the party of the future,” Obama said on March 31, 2008, in Lancaster, Pa. 

That Rubio is running on the Obama playbook isn’t news. Still, this “Obama paradox” presents itself starkly every time Rubio makes the generational argument. Republicans railed against Obama as a young, flashy celebrity with a thin résumé his first time out. Now they have their own, Cuban-American version of Obama. And it’s hard to argue with success; Obama, after all, won the presidency twice.

Rubio hasn’t reached celebrity status, and is still in single digits in polls of Republican voters. But in these early debates, if voters are watching, they’re forming impressions of likability and character. And Rubio is gaining momentum, worrying Democrats, as Mr. Pfeiffer makes clear, citing conversations with fellow Democrats.

“He is a skilled messenger and could very credibly run a change vs. more of the same campaign against Clinton,” the former Obama aide writes for CNN. “Rubio is also the most broadly appealing GOP candidate and would have the best shot to close the nonwhite vote gap with the Democrats.”

But there’s a “but,” of course.

“We haven't seen Rubio tested in any real way in this campaign, and his support seems to be very top down,” Pfeiffer writes. “Operatives, pundits and donors are wowed, but the voters are pretty meh on Rubio to date. This is very different from Obama, who had tremendous grassroots support from the beginning.”

Then he offers the all-purpose caveat: It’s still early. There are still almost three months to go until the kickoff Iowa caucuses, and just under a year until Election Day. As one New Hampshire GOP voter put it on the eve of Tuesday’s debate, “I still don’t know what to think of that guy, what’s his name? Marco Polo?”

The Republican “establishment” – the party leaders, politicians, and big donors – is still sorting through its feelings about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rubio’s former mentor and friend. Mr. Bush has struggled to wow voters, and has been blessed (in fundraising) and burdened (with the public) by his last name, as the son and brother of two former presidents Bush. Rubio’s comment on generational change could just as easily have applied to the older, grayer former governor as it did to Clinton.

In that establishment “bracket,” Tuesday night’s debate didn’t settle anything. Bush performed well enough, and certainly better than in the last GOP debate, when he went after Rubio on his poor attendance record in the Senate, and was clobbered by Rubio’s response.

On Tuesday, in Milwaukee, the two Floridians played nice and kept it positive. The prime target for all the candidates was Clinton. And if Rubio does go on to win the GOP nomination – a big “if” – his task in going up against the likely Democratic nominee will be more complicated than Obama’s challenge against McCain.

Clinton would be the first woman president, and Rubio would have to be careful in how he goes after her. But there’s a playbook for that, too. When Clinton ran for the US Senate in New York against the younger Rep. Rick Lazio (R) in 2000, he made a move during a debate that was widely seen as disrespectful to a distinguished older woman. He left his podium, walked over to her, and waved a piece of paper at her, demanding she sign it (the so-called “New York Freedom from Soft Money Pledge”). She refused, and Mr. Lazio gave up. 

The incident immediately entered campaign lore, filed under “what not to do.”

Rubio’s momentum has been building up slowly – too slowly, in the eyes of some Republican operatives, who see voters wowed first by Donald Trump, then Ben Carson, depriving attention from the more conventional candidates. The race for top “outsider” is still hot, and includes another young Cuban-American first-term senator, Ted Cruz of Texas.

But Rubio is the one running the hope-filled campaign as the candidate of the future. And if he really is the Latino Obama, the playbook is written.

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