The GOP is crumbling. That was the general sentiment around the fifth and final Republican primary debate of the year. Whether it was Donald Trump's unsettling feud with fading candidate Jeb Bush or the rest of the field's ensuing panic to remain relevant, the night was chock-full of uncomfortable cross talk and close calls. In the midst of it all was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who benefits from Trump's chaotic battle with the Republican establishment. For the most part, he avoided any direct, outrageous confrontation with the rest of the candidates on the stage.
Buried beneath the evening's tense moments, Rubio quietly maneuvered around the majority of Trump's vague threats and the rest of the pack's exhausting political onslaught, jumping in only when mentioned directly, and always with an air of control.
After being asked whether Ted Cruz was wrong for voting in favor of the USA Freedom Act, the data collection legislation that replaced the PATRIOT Act this past June, Rubio sidestepped a potential landmine. He avoided a wave of ad hominem attacks against the Texas senator, and added that the act itself was faulty and would not prevent terror attacks in the future. "[Sen. Cruz] was wrong," said Rubio coolly. "The next time there is attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn't we know about it and why didn't we stop it? And the answer better not be because we didn't have access to records or information."
Later, when debate moderator Wolf Blitzer inquired about whether Rubio disagreed with Cruz's strategy to carpet-bomb ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, where the militant group currently maintains a stronghold, Rubio eased back, letting Cruz do much of the squabbling. "Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's strategy is to lead from behind," Rubio finally countered, redirecting the brunt of Cruz's anger back at their collective Democratic rivals. "We are the most powerful nation in the world. We need to begin to act like it again."
It worked. Although the ensuing discussion between Cruz and Rubio at times became impassioned, Rubio remained largely well-behaved, and in turn, came off as the more level-headed of the two.
The same could not be said for the remainder of the Republican field, which turned to angry tirades and heated bickering in competition for the spotlight. Leading the charge on that contentious front was none other than Trump, who seemed to take issue with every other candidate on the stage (many of whom responded in kind).
There was the notorious Trump/Bush exchange, which at one point seemed like it would come to blows. "Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate and he'd be a chaos president," Bush said, remarking on Trump's foreign policy stances. "He would not be the commander-in-chief we need to keep our country safe." Throughout the evening, the billionaire mogul also faced off with commentator and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt over what he alleged was a ploy by CNN to start fights between Trump and the other candidates to increase ratings.
But through it all, Rubio was relatively silent, stepping in to comment on important issues and nothing more. Compared with Trump and Bush's fierce sparring, Rubio's terse exchanges with Cruz seemed almost boring — which was exactly what he needed to keep his third-place position in the polls. While the other candidates opted to talk over one another and throw punches, Rubio hid in the background. It was the same strategy he's employed in the last few debates, and so far, it's been working. Rubio's poll numbers have received a much-needed boost, while more contentious candidates have fallen to the wayside.
As long as Cruz (who's been battling it out with Trump for first place in the polls recently) continues down a similar trajectory as previous second-place candidates like Ben Carson — landing a few key hits before ultimately growing uninteresting or repetitive — Rubio could still have a shot at the GOP nomination, come primary season. If he's looking to take home a win, keeping to his original game plan might just be the key.