DES MOINES, Iowa—Marco Rubio still comes across as overly rehearsed. The senator doesn’t offer his lines with the same bluster as Ted Cruz or Chris Christie. But with a disciplined delivery, bite-sized testimonials of his Christian faith, and an articulation of a muscular foreign policy vision that matches the angst of voters, he found himself well-positioned for a strong finish in the Iowa caucuses. In the final GOP debate before Iowa voters cast their ballots, Rubio proved that he’s a consensus candidate in a splintered party whose leaders are desperately looking for any kind of unity.
Whether his polished performance is enough to propel him into second place is unclear. He struggled to explain his evolving positions on immigration reform, a central issue for conservative voters that has long been a thorn in his side. But a lengthy discussion of immigration proved that none of the GOP candidates on the stage are purists on the issue: Bush’s views are still to the left of the GOP electorate, and Cruz underscored his own inconsistencies on the issue.
Rubio also benefited from a bit of good luck. Donald Trump’s absence let the candidates focus on policy issues, notably national security, which played to Rubio’s strengths. By a sizable margin, Rubio tallied the most time talking in this debate. Meanwhile, Cruz was so overeager to have a made-for-TV moment that he overplayed his hand. From imitating Trump in the debate’s opening sequence to threatening to leave the stage if he wasn’t given time to address a question, he drew attention to his least endearing qualities.