This was perhaps the most talked-about moment in the debate. Rubio was able to turn the tables on Jeb Bush after Bush attacked him. It's worth looking at how Rubio did this.(Video here, transcript here.)
The moderator referred to recent criticism that Rubio is skipping a lot votes in the Senate while he's campaigning. Rubio handled this so deftly that it should be a blueprint for others. He said:
"in 2004, John Kerry ran for president missing close to 60 to 70 percent of his votes. I don't recall the Sun -- in fact, the Sun-Sentinel endorsed him. In 2008, Barack Obama missed 60 or 70 percent of his votes, and the same newspaper endorsed him again."
Then Jeb Bush piled on, saying he was criticizing him as a constituent. This is how Rubio answered him:
"...you're modeling your campaign after John McCain... You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you're now modeling after? ...I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. 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."
How Rubio turned the tables
First, Rubio didn't deny that he was missing votes, He didn't get defensive about why it was OK for him to be missing votes. Instead, he pointed out the important issues facing the country, implying (correctly) that's where the focus should be, not on a tiny non-issue of a senator missing non-important votes:
"For the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses closing than starting. We have a world that's out of control and has grown dangerous and a president that is weakening our military and making our foreign policy unstable and unreliable in the eyes of our allies."He also didn't get whiny, with his focus on the unfairness of it all. His focus was on the argument being made, and how weak it was.
Rubio pointed out the same newspaper that complained about him endorsed both Kerry and Obama for president, even though both missed many more votes than Rubio did. The clear implication is that 'missing votes' was a smokescreen, showing the complaint was likely a partisan attack, not a major point of principle. Well done!
When Jeb Bush piled on, Rubio was clearly ready. "Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you" is a very raw truth, and it definitely rings true. Bush is not politically very different from Rubio, so his attacks aren't going to be on major issues, but on minor kinks that he'll need to exaggerate in an attempt to gain an advantage.
Don't sweat the small stuff
The truth is that missing Senate votes isn't generally a huge issue for the few senators who are campaigning. However, it's used as an attack because it shows that the candidate isn't PERFECT. Well, duh, we know that. Candidates get into trouble by pretending they are perfect. Rubio definitely avoided this pitfall. Other candidates would be wise to study and learn that technique.
So what is the blueprint for handling attacks? If it's a nothingburger complaint, as this one was, point out how shallow it is, and how hypocritical your opponent is for making such an attack. Of course, this means that you have to live by that standard. I hope Rubio does, as I would hope that all candidates would.
Note that this strategy doesn't help with the big attacks on big issues. That's so different that it has to be a different post.