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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Rubio scores comeback debate performance in South Carolina

GOP debate in Greenville, S.C.


GOP debate in Greenville, S.C.



The kid came back.

Forty-four-year-old Marco Rubio, the youngest presidential candidate, invigorated his campaign Saturday night with a strong debate performance. He won lines, seized opportunities. Rubio was his usual debate self, not that panicked robot in New Hampshire.

"I do not believe the president should appoint someone,” Rubio said early on, referring to the death of Antonin Scalia. “And it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it’s been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice. And it reminds us of this, how important this election is."

Rubio got the facts wrong but the tone right. Later, as Donald Trump and Jeb Bush squabbled over 9/11, George W. Bush (and, bizarrely, Barbara Bush) Rubio took on Jeb’s thunder with a soundbite.

"I just want to say, on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore,” Rubio said.

That hushed sound in Brett Doster’s world? Bush’s camp cringing at Rubio’s brilliant plagiarism. W. could still be big; he appears Monday night at a rally in North Charleston.

Even when Cruz laid in on immigration, Rubio hit back, pointing out Cruz isn’t as pure as he sounds. Cruz landed hits but Rubio persisted and survived. He subtly bullied opponents, talking over Ben Carson to steal time to discuss an applause-generating plan to shift federal poverty programs to the states.

Hurt in New Hampshire, Rubio crawled -- flew charter, actually -- to South Carolina and his primary mission was to trying to break the “narrative.” The candidate who has kept a distant from the press was suddenly all about the press, even as he tried to paper over his debate performance by blaming media coverage. No longer reluctant to challenge rivals, he lashed out at Bush, Cruz and Trump.

Bush did well, too. But he needed Rubio to have another off night, or at least an unremarkable one, and Rubio refused to play along.

[Last modified: Sunday, February 14, 2016 2:41am]


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