The Republicans have found their 2016 playbook — and Marco Rubio is their new quarterback

After Wednesday's Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Rubio's stock is rising — just like another freshman senator eight years ago

Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado, was billed as a discussion of economic policy and pocketbook issues. CNBC — the more conservative, business-oriented sibling of MSNBC — hosted the debate, lending credence to the money-focused billing. But while there was some discussion of the economy, taxes, and personal finances, the third Republican debate of 2015 devolved into a two-hour-long melee between the GOP candidates and the moderators, and a love-hate-fest between the presidential hopefuls.

The moderators — John Harwood, Becky Quick, and Carl Quintanilla — lost the fight. So did Jeb Bush, former projected frontrunner. The winners, according to broad punditry consensus, were Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), the two Cuban-Americans representing the establishment and renegade factions, respectively, of the Republican Party.

Cruz played to his base (and Sen. Rand Paul's), urging an audit of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard, claiming the mantle of the Republican politicians most likely to attack the GOP establishment, and implicitly suggesting that there isn't room in the GOP field for both he and Paul. He scored points for starting the pushback against the questions from the moderators — not tougher than in other debates, really, but peppered with some colorful barbs — and recognizing how much the audience would eat that up.

Rubio artfully deflected a question about a scathing editorial from Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper by launching his own attack on the "bias that exists in the American media" and how, he said, it favors the Democratic candidates. But the moment that has commentators swooning — and writing the political obituary of Rubio's former mentor, Jeb Bush — came next, when Bush launched his widely expected attack on Rubio for slacking on his cushy day job as a U.S. senator. Rubio was ready. Taken together, these were perhaps the four most important minutes of the debate:

Just about everybody on stage had their moment — some good, some bad, some just strange.

Ben Carson, the current No. 1 or No. 2 in the polls, stood up for Costco's gay-friendly politics and distanced himself from a supplement maker called Mannatech — while acknowledging he takes their products and does paid speaking gigs for the company.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich pointedly described his GOP rivals as unserious fantasy-spinners with little experience with government finance.

Mike Huckabee said he likes Donald Trump and was wearing one of his ties — bizarrely and triumphantly telling the moderators, "Get over that one" — and suggested that he is lucky to be alive after battling the Clintons for his entire political career.

Carly Fiorina — who had the most speaking time — attacked Big Business and Big Government, defended her tenure at Hewlett-Packard (again), and proposed cutting the U.S. tax code down to three pages to even the playing field between powerful corporations and small businesses.

Gov. Chris Christie took a stand for fantasy football (and, by extension, gambling) and accused President Obama of endangering police officers.

Donald Trump forcefully attacked super PACs and claimed credit for negotiating the debate down to two hours "so we can get the hell out of here," while most of his rivals on stage complained they didn't get enough speaking time.

Jeb Bush, perhaps prophetically, joked that Marco Rubio is the quarterback of his undefeated fantasy football league.

But as the debate wore on, the Republicans on stage seemed to reach a sort of consensus: They were in this together, against a hostile media, united in their desire to defeat Hillary Clinton, whom they all seem to have decided will be the Democratic presidential nominee; the federal government is inept and/or corrupt, and they want to either use their unique talents to fix it or whittle it down as small as possible; and cutting taxes will be good for businesses and the middle class.

If the news media was the big punching bag of the night, the next ripest target was Clinton. Six of the candidates collectively mentioned her 14 times, usually in reference to how they planned to defeat her. Clinton didn't appear to be phased by the attention:

And they are right — one of them will likely face her in a general election. After tonight, Republicans and their big donors might well start abandoning Bush for Rubio; Ted Cruz could come closer to being the "serious" outsider candidate, there to step in if Trump and Carson crash and burn; or Trump and Carson may emerge unscathed, still collectively earning more than half the Republican support in a 14-candidate field.

But as everybody does their Thursday-morning-quarterbacking of the lively, strange GOP face-off in Boulder, there's definitely "something worth remembering," cautions Gerald Seib at The Wall Street Journal: "Wednesday night's debate came three months before the first votes are cast, an awfully long time for things to change." How much? He turned the clock back to 2007:

At this point eight years ago, the Gallup polling organization put out a detailed summary of the state of the presidential race. Its bottom lines: Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton was the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic primary, and fellow Sen. Barack Obama was fading. On the Republican side, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been in the lead for eight months, and Sen. John McCain lagged behind back in third place. [The Wall Street Journal]

Much has been made about Bush trying to model his political comeback on McCain's — Rubio mentioned that, derisively, on Wednesday night. But perhaps ironically, the candidate every Republican wants to be in that 2008 scenario is Barack Obama. And after the debate, the odds went up that Republicans, like the Democrats in 2008, will throw their lot in with a young, first-term U.S. senator instead of a seasoned political veteran.


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