We have reached a new stage of the Republican nominating process. The field is beginning to sort itself out; the sudden departure of Scott Walker was symbolic of a sea change happening within. Trump has become–dare I say it?–boring. Dr. Ben Carson’s weirdness is showing. The tortoises are consolidating their positions–Ted Cruz on the right, Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich in the middle. And then there is Marco Rubio, who stands to the right of the moderates but manages to convey his conservatism without vitriol, and has emerged as the most polished orator of the bunch.
After the debate, I spent a day on the trail with Rubio in Georgia and North Carolina. The crowds were not Trumpian in size or in any other sense–much of the audience wore business attire; there were few tattoos or heavy-metal T-shirts; there were significant numbers of young people and Latinos. His stump speech was sleek and bright: the sky was not falling. He talked more about the future than about the past. After telling his up-from-Cuba life story, he focused on three specific policy areas–the economy, higher education and national security. He talked about the emerging economy, rather than the manufacturing jobs lost: “It took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users. It took Candy Crush one,” he said, referring to the popular video game. He talked about Airbnb, Uber, Amazon–companies that embody the lightning pace of change. His plans to encourage that sort of entrepreneurialism were standard-issue Republican: lower taxes, fewer regulations. But his vision was more compelling than the other GOP economic pitches I’ve heard this year. It flowed naturally into the higher-education section of the speech, which was truly creative, with its emphasis on vocational-skills training and specific ideas for reforming the student-loan mess. Rubio would no doubt be horrified to learn that the only other candidate I’ve heard as passionate about technical-skills training is Hillary Clinton.