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It Was Rubio’s Tuesday

The most important freshman senator.

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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“Let’s go over your opening and closing statements again,” said Todd Harris, a senior adviser who had run Rubio’s debate prep team for months. “They were the shakiest ever earlier this afternoon.” 

Everyone laughed, including Rubio. “Thanks, man. Appreciate that vote of confidence. What about bucking up the candidate before the big debate?” 

Harris clicked the stopwatch and Rubio launched into his open, thanking Floridians for watching, reminding them of the stakes and then asking them for their vote. Harris clicked the stopwatch again when he finished. 

“How long?” Rubio wondered. He had a minute for the real thing. 

“Fifty-six seconds,” said Harris. “That was great.”

David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, appeared on a muted television in the corner of the room, giving a preview of the debate to a local anchor. Rubio called for volume. Gregory praised the candidates for doing so many debates and said he wanted to make sure the candidates gave substantive answers to the questions of most immediate concern to Floridians.

It was exactly what the Rubio team wanted to hear. The polls showed them a dozen points ahead of Crist, a Republican who turned independent when it became clear he would lose the GOP primary. Rubio wanted the final debate to be either substantive or boring. Or both.

“I’m just going to wonk out,” he said. 

Harris thought Gregory would focus on the economy and Florida’s much-publicized mortgage problems. He knew that Gregory understood the issue well because his wife had worked at Fannie Mae. And Harris told Rubio that Gregory, being a well-known national journalist, would try to demonstrate his local knowledge. Harris, along with Martinez, Burgos, and Julio Rebull, a longtime friend and key adviser to Rubio, had peppered the candidate with questions on the issue earlier that afternoon. When a producer gave Rubio a five-minute warning, Harris returned to the foreclosure issue, and they worked on his answer until it was time for the debate to begin.

Rubio gave the opening statement just as he had in the conference room, and after the other candidates spoke, Gregory turned to questions.

“I want to start with what was single-handedly responsible for the collapse of the economy, and that was the foreclosure crisis. I spent some time going through the papers today and I see some pretty tough numbers,” Gregory said, before reading several local headlines. “Speaker Rubio, Americans have lost $6 trillion. The centerpiece of their savings and their lives wiped away when equity prices in their homes evaporated in this collapse. The Obama administration has frankly not done very much to mitigate that problem. The foreclosure problem continues—in Florida and around the nation. What would you do to solve the foreclosure problem?”

“Let’s analyze this in three parts,” he began. Rubio said the problem started with bad housing policy and was exacerbated by bad monetary policy. He allowed that there are no easy answers, but argued that the Obama administration’s solutions haven’t worked. 

Then he wonked out. 

“The 1.3 million temporary workouts—of those, over half have defaulted,” he said. Gregory interjected. “Those are called mortgage modifications.” Rubio drew a distinction. “But they’re temporary mortgage modifications. There have been 500,000 permanent [modifications], and we just found out yesterday that of the 500,000 permanent, 11 percent of those have defaulted. So it’s clear that these plans haven’t worked largely because they’re focused on lowering the interest rates or pushing the period of the loan back. So for example, if you owed five months, they just added five months to the back of the loan.”

It was a nearly perfect answer. Gregory seemed determined to grill each of the three candidates Meet-the-Press style once in the hourlong debate. Rubio had passed his test. 

Gregory turned to Crist. The governor had run a shamelessly demagogic ad on Social Security, suggesting that Rubio would take benefits away from seniors already receiving them. Gregory briefly walked Crist through the uncomfortable math of Social Security solvency and pressed him for details of his plan to save it. Crist fixed his face in a way to convey sincerity and seriousness. “I’m an optimistic person.” The staff in the Rubio holding room exploded with laughter. The other candidates at the table with Crist snickered. 

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