Perhaps no candidate needed a strong performance in Wednesday's CNBC's Republican Presidential debate more than former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. However, this one-time front-runner's poor debate performance may have devastating consequences for his struggling campaign. Once again, Bush often appeared ill at ease and self-conscious, even when he mustered an attack on an opponent.
Take the sharp exchange over Florida Senator Marco Rubio's poor Senate voting record. CNBC's Carl Quintanilla raised the issue concluding his question, "Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or least finish what you start?" Rubio was ready with a well-rehearsed answer, "That's exactly what the Republican establishment says too. Why don't you wait in line? Wait for what? This country is running out of time. We can't afford to have another four years like the last eight years."
Quintanilla pointed out that a Florida newspaper, The Sun-Sentinel, had called on Rubio to resign his Senate seat. Rubio cited precedents, "Back in 2004, one of my predecessors to the Senate by the name of Bob Graham, a Democrat, ran for president missing over 30 percent of his votes. I don't recall them calling for his resignation." He then added, "John Kerry ran for president missing close to 60 to 70 percent of his votes... the Sun-Sentinel endorsed him." He continued, "In 2008, Barack Obama missed 60 or 70 percent of his votes, and the same newspaper endorsed him again. So this is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement."
Bush jumped in, pointing out that the Sun-Sentinel endorsed Rubio for the Senate. "But Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work," Bush asserted. "I mean, literally, the Senate -- what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job."
But Rubio turned the tables on Bush, sharply responding, "Well, it's interesting. Over the last few weeks, I've listened to Jeb as he walked around the country and said that you're modeling your campaign after John McCain, that you're going to launch a furious comeback the way he did, by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport. You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you're now modeling after?"
Bush's feeble response was brief, "He wasn't my senator." The man he had mentored had upstaged the former governor. Bush, who has slipped into the single digits in the polls, needed a strong debate performance, but he failed to deliver. The top debate performers were Rubio, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson did well enough not to disappoint their followers.
Bush has seemed uncomfortable since the beginning of his campaign. His body language and frequent gaffes have consistently betrayed a politician who wasn't fully committed. He has been easily rattled throughout the campaign by taunts from Trump, like calling Bush a "low-energy" candidate. Last week, Bush expressed his frustration for the current state of partisan politics. "If this election is about how we're going to fight to get nothing done, then I don't want any part of it." He continued, "I've got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that."
The fact that Trump and Carson have such a large lead in recent polls of likely Republican voters strongly indicates that they are looking for an outsider to lead their party to the White House. Wednesday's debate was a must win for Jeb Bush, an opportunity to prove his critics wrong, to seize momentum by demonstrating he could lead the party to victory next November. Instead, his puzzling debate performance lacked passion, fight and self-confidence.
Perhaps Bush was just too preoccupied thinking about all the other cool things he could be doing?