Marco Rubio is 'winning' debate coverage. Will that matter?

Senator Rubio's sharp response to Jeb Bush connected with many pundits. Winning the after-debate coverage is an important metric in itself. 

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate former Gov. Jeb Bush listens (l.) as US Sen. Marco Rubio makes a point at the 2016 Republican presidential candidates debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colo., on Wednesday.

Did Marco Rubio “win” last night’s third Republican presidential debate? That’s debatable – there weren’t real judges and scores. But that hasn’t stopped the self-appointed arbiters of the press from opining that the Senator Rubio of Florida – and perhaps Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – gained most from the CNBC showdown.

That means that Rubio is winning the after-debate coverage – a more measurable and important metric in itself.

“Rubio had the most impressive night,” writes right-leaning National Review’s Rich Lowry. The Floridian effectively parried hostile questions and ended many answers by talking about the need to help Americans struggling in the current economy, according to the NR pundit.

Rubio’s response to Jeb Bush figured large in many opinion scorecards. After former Florida Governor Bush attacked him for missing Senate votes – saying this bothered him as a Sunshine State constituent – Rubio replied that Bush and the news media didn’t worry about John McCain or Barack Obama missing roll-calls when they were on the stump. Then he played his ace.

“The only reason why you’re [complaining] now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” said Rubio.

Ouch.

“Rubio had roughly 70 percent of the memorable moments in the debate and continued to show that he is simply better at this than the other candidate on stage,” wrote Leon Wolf at the conservative RedState site.

It wasn’t just Republicans – many in the mainstream media concurred that Rubio had damaged Bush with his arched-eyebrow response, and in general came off best over the whole evening.

“The Florida Senator was good in the first two debates. He was outstanding in this one,” judged Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post’s The Fix political blog.

But remember: The response of actual voters to debates can be unpredictable. Many don’t watch the event through. They experience it in retrospect, as “likes” and “dislikes” on social media, clips on John Oliver, or snippets on the evening news.

Ben Carson’s debate performances have been widely panned, for instance, as too quiet, boring, and low-energy. Yet he seems to have bumbled his way into first place in GOP polls in Iowa and at least one recent national poll.

Rubio has long been touted as a potential breakout candidate – the possible replacement for Jeb Bush as the establishment’s favorite. The problem is there’s no evidence of that yet in the polls. Rubio’s not done badly but he remains in the high single digits, far behind front-runners Carson and Donald Trump.

But news coverage, particularly positive news coverage, can drive polls, and thus Rubio may get a bounce from Wednesday’s showdown. The chances of that are increased by the fact that there is a single memorable encounter – the mic drop on Bush – that news organizations can show over and over.

The central question then becomes whether important GOP figures – state party chairman, big fundraisers, and establishment pundits – decide that it’s time to coalesce around a single candidate to oppose the Carson/Trump outsiders. That could narrow the field and make a huge difference in the dynamics of the race.

“Will they finally get off the fence and declare for Rubio? Or are they willing to give Bush more time?” writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in his Bloomberg column, making this point.

After all, we’re nearing the halfway mark of the period from the first GOP debate on Aug. 6 to the Iowa caucuses. The time to start choosing is nigh.

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