Boulder, Colorado — Marco Rubio came here to bury Jeb Bush, not to praise him.
In a long-awaited altercation between the onetime political allies, the current Florida senator and former Florida governor sparred face-to-face for the first time at CNBC's Republican primary debate in an exchange that drew gasps from audience members and set the tone for a contentious two-hour broadcast. The consensus: Rubio mopped the floor with his former mentor.
The first-term senator and former Bush protege's widely lauded performance during Wednesday night's debate could be the springboard that his campaign has been waiting for — and the beginning of the political end for the third member of the Bush family to seek the presidency. Bush donors, already privately expressing reservations about the former governor's ability to stay competitive, may see the candidate's poor performance as the straw that broke the camel's back — and Rubio as their savior.
"He got a fastball thrown right at his head, and he knocked it out of the park," Terry Sullivan, Rubio's campaign manager, told Mic after the debate. "It's checking another box: Can he take a punch? How does he handle it? And he took some punches, and returned them just as good as he got them."
The student became the master: After Rubio responded to a question regarding his attendance record in the Senate with an adroit rejoinder decrying perceived liberal bias in mainstream media, Bush interjected with a line that had clearly been rehearsed to within an inch of its life.
"I'm a constituent of the senator, and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work," he said, as Rubio stared unblinkingly at the man who has nurtured his political career since the late 90s. "Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job."
Bush's unprompted criticism ended a months-long detente between the fellow Floridians, and lobbed a direct attack on the candidate that many voters say is their second choice. But if a candidate is going to take aim at Rubio, an adept public speaker widely acknowledged as the best debater in the field, he'd best not miss.
"Over the last few weeks, I have listened to Jeb as he's walked around the country and said that you're modeling your campaign after John McCain," Rubio responded, "that you're going to launch a furious comeback the way he did, by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport. Do you know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you're now modeling after?"
Bush sputtered as Rubio continued. "I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record," the first-term senator said. "The only reason why you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."
A devastating misstep: Bush never recovered from Rubio's counterattack. Although his initial point about the senator's attendance record is sound — Rubio has missed 29.1% of roll call votes in the Senate this year, the most of any candidate — the manner in which he made it was disastrous.
For Bush to go negative so quickly against a candidate who has resolutely avoided criticizing his former mentor fed into the narrative that the Bush campaign, which cut payroll by 40% last week in an effort to remain competitive, is in freefall. Rubio's response — that Bush's attack was merely a cynical ploy to improve his standing in the polls — framed the attack as the desperate move of a faltering candidate, rather than a legitimate critique of Rubio's dedication to public service. Bush faded into the backdrop as candidates with worse polling percentages and less credibility stole the spotlight by critiquing Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media.
Bush's few attempts to inject himself into the conversation after Rubio's parry were alternately awkward and self-injurious. When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee bragged that he was wearing a Donald Trump-branded tie, Bush mockingly asked if it was "made in China or Mexico?" to an auditorium full of crickets. His offer to plant a "warm kiss" on any Democrat willing to cut spending prompted the entire Internet to vomit in its mouth a little. Towards the end of the debate, when host Carl Quintanilla asked Bush about gambling in fantasy football leagues, Bush bragged about his team's 7-0 standing. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blew his stack.
"Are we really talking about getting the government involved in fantasy football?" Christie shouted. "We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us, and we're talking about fantasy football?" Christie's call for seriousness earned him hoots and hollers from the crowd, and made Bush's attempt at lightheartedness seem childish.
By the end of the debate, Rubio walked away with the second-longest speaking time of any candidate onstage, only 22 seconds behind the famously loquacious Carly Fiorina. Bush came in second-to-last with a pitiful six minutes and 39 seconds, beating soon-to-be-former-candidate Sen. Rand Paul by a mere 24 seconds. Given Bush's lackluster performance during the time he did manage to get, however, any more speaking time might have just ended up hastening his decline.
A rough night: Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz was circumspect in his description of the former governor's performance after the debate's conclusion. "He appreciated the opportunity — and you know what? We're headed to New Hampshire tomorrow," he told reporters after the debate. The tone of the questions, described by one reporter as "depicting a candidate under siege," were a strong indicator of just how poorly Bush had done in the debate, but Diaz deflected the criticisms. "We've got more work to do," he said. "This hasn't been decided — 46% of New Hampshire voters decide in the last week. Stick with us, brother, it'll be good."
Bush, who was visibly agitated toward the end of the two-hour affair, followed the lead of many debate losers by avoiding the spin room entirely. Instead, Bush was found telling a small gathering of press near the restrooms that just as other flash-in-the-pan candidacies have worn out in campaigns past, so too will the current frontrunners for the Republican nomination. "We have a long ways to go to the caucus from where we are," he said, before giving a hug to former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a longtime friend of the Bush clan.
The candidate attempted to place some distance between the more persistent reporters and himself, taking long strides as he was peppered with unanswered questions about his performance. When asked about the consensus that he'd failed to deliver the performance his campaign depended on, Bush testily told Mic, "It's not a performance — I'm running for President of the United States."
Rubio's staff, for what it's worth, are hoping to leave Boulder as graceful victors. "There's no need to pile on Gov. Bush after his performance tonight," Terry Sullivan, Rubio's campaign manager, told Mic after the debate. "Their exchange speaks for itself."