8 February 2016

Repeat after me: Rubio is still the Republican that the Democrats fear


Given Saturday night’s Rubio-Bot moment (already pilloried by Hillary Clinton’s SuperPac), a March 2011 article by Jonathan Chait seems eerily prescient. “Is Marco Rubio Secretly A Robot?”, he asked:

“Do you get the feeling that ‘Marco Rubio’ is not an actual human being at all but some kind of computer program designed by the Republican Party? Imagine they had the technical know-how to create a candidate like this. What would they come up with? They’d come up with Marco Rubio, a cinematically handsome Latino from Florida who hews to the Tea Party line while spitting out patriotic cliches that sound as if they were programmed like a computer. I’m not saying I’m sure Rubio is a robot. I’m just saying that I want to watch him walk through a metal detector.”

As I examined Twitter on Saturday night, I was most struck by the glee with which Democrats were falling on Rubio’s stuck-on-repeat-moment. They desperately want the “cinematically handsome Latino from Florida” to fail – because, surprise, surprise, they don’t want a likeable minority candidate from a swing state to be the Republican nominee.

After what some Brits will remember as something of an Ed Miliband moment, how badly damaged is Senator Rubio? If the Florida Senator can stay ahead of the three governors – Kasich, Bush and Christie – in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the answer has to be “not much”. If, however, one or more of the trio of governors do well and decide to contest the coming primaries the “marcomentum” in terms of money, endorsements and sign-ups that Rubio started getting after Iowa may well be lost and Ted Cruz, in particular, starts to look harder to stop again.

My hunch – and hope, too – is that the pundits are more excited than voters will be at the Robo-Rubio gaffe. Senator Rubio showed in plenty of his other answers that he has plenty of fluency. His answer on abortion was particularly powerful, he was expert in articulating the case against Hillary Clinton, and his discussion of his brother’s military service and the medical care that vets should receive was Google’s most searched for moment of the ABC News debate.

Rubio has weaknesses. His flip-flopping on immigration. His lack of achievements in the Senate. His hardline position on abortion. His general inexperience. But I don’t think the Robo-Rubio thing will be fatal because voters don’t think he’s stupid or inarticulate. He has impressed in most debates. He’s good (and responsive) in TV interviews. And, personally, I’ve witnessed him speak authoritatively on foreign policy during a visit to London.

He screwed up on Saturday night. Badly. And, unlike in Iowa, he’s now unlikely to do very well among late deciders. But if he can finish third on Tuesday night, ahead of the other mainstream candidates, this incident can be forgotten. It can be forgotten because he’s still the Republicans’ most electable candidate. And that is a fact that can’t be repeated enough.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute was published on 4th November.