MIAMI, FLORIDA – Sen. Marco Rubio hit the reset button on his campaign, returning to his aspirational, policy-centric message that played well early in his campaign.
Rubio had already apologized for his controversial rhetoric in a Fox News interview and MSNBC interview earlier in the week, but it was instantly clear that he was not at the debate to entertain voters.
He shied away from comments about Trump’s business failures, the Trump University attacks, the hiring of illegal workers, or dismissing the billionaire as a con artist. The flashy campaign store tricks of yoga pants and broken Trump watches were also noticeably absent.
When he did challenge Trump, Rubio pointed out that the New Yorker’s policies were weak on Social Security, but didn’t ridicule the billionaire as he did it.
“The numbers don’t add up,” he said, detailing his own policy on social security.
He ignored loaded questions about the tone of Donald Trump’s political rallies, and instead focused on the importance of supporting law enforcement and police officers.
On Trump’s controversial statement about Muslims, Rubio connected the issue to a specific story of a missionary that was finding it difficult to spread Christianity to the Muslim world. He also reminded the audience of the Muslim-American soldiers who died in service of their country.
Rubio’s biggest line of the night was in response to a warning from Trump about the dangers of being politically correct.
“I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct,” he said as the crowd cheered.
Even Rubio’s attack on Trump over his position on Israel was noticeably polite.
“The policy Donald has outlined, I don’t know if he realizes, is an anti-Israeli policy,” he said. “Maybe that’s not your intent but here’s why it is an anti-Israeli policy. There is no peace deal possible with the Palestinians at this moment.”
The stories that Rubio has featured on the campaign trail were also prominent in his debate strategy. His brother who served in the military who struggled with the V.A. and his grandfather who told him that Americans could do anything.
Finally, he explained why he would continue to campaign, citing a new story he heard from his wife about a man who just came out of surgery, but still sat outside a voting location holding a Marco Rubio sign.
“That gentleman has not given up on me and I am not going to give up on him,” he said.
After the debate, Rubio’s sunniest surrogate Sen. Corey Gardner showed to talk to reporters about the performance. Gardner steered away from discussion about Rubio’s abandoned trip into the gutter, but focused on the future of the campaign as if it never happened.
“Marco and his team know what it takes to win this country and that means you have an aspirational, positive message,” he said. “He’s the only candidate up there that reflects that positivity and that optimism – in his opening and his closing, he’s the only one that looks joyful about his vision for the country.”
Later on CNN, Rubio explained that he was back on track.
“I’m never going back into that gutter again. from now on our campaign is going to be about what I have always want it to be about,” Rubio said in a post debate interview with Wolf Blitzer, referring to a positive policy centric message.
“That’s what it has been about for the whole time, but for one day I guess…” he said reflectively as he trailed off.