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Jeb Bush Falls Flat at the GOP Debate

And his plan to attack Marco Rubio is a gift to the Rubio campaign

Scott Olsen/Getty

Jeb Bush may have set out to deliver a blow to media favorite Marco Rubio's campaign during Tuesday's Republican debate, but his efforts didn't get him very far. Bush suffered weak applause after pleading for moderate immigration policies in the wake of Donald Trump's more extreme proposals, and came off vague and non-specific in explaining his plans for tax reform. During a commercial break, the former Florida governor gave his one-time protégé the cold shoulder, turning away from a convivial handshake, but that was about as forceful a response to Rubio as he could muster Tuesday night.

Yet a more vigorous line of attack might be an even greater misstep for Team Bush when it comes to responding to Rubio's growing success.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that cash-soaked allies of Bush's campaign intend to launch a negative assault on fellow Floridian Rubio’s record sometime soon. Among other avenues of attack, two aspects of Rubio’s record arose as ripe for assailing: First, the fact that he missed the vote to defund Planned Parenthood earlier this year; second, that his opposition to abortion is too extreme to help him in the general election. Rubio supporters have since claimed the senator would defund Planned Parenthood as president.

But perhaps the most curious aspect of the Bush campaign’s plan of attack is that someone involved seems to believe hardline views on abortion could be a problem for a GOP candidate. The likelier outcome of a Rubio smear aimed at his no-exceptions stance on abortion would be a major boost for the senator, supposing anyone is still listening to the Bush campaign.

While it’s true that most conservatives favor some allowances for legal abortion, one in five consistent conservatives would still prefer that abortion be illegal in all cases, while 51 percent would allow abortion only in rare circumstances. Among Evangelicals, the GOP’s single largest religious bloc, views on abortion are even more polarized, with 63 percent reporting abortion should be illegal in all or most cases in a recent Pew Forum survey. Pew notes that rates of anti-abortion sentiment among Evangelicals differ little between older and younger generations, making the abortion issue a remarkably stable one among this coveted demographic.

In other words, painting Rubio as tough on abortion, especially coming off of this summer's battle to defund Planned Parenthood and its resulting surge in liberal activism surrounding abortion acccess, is almost a charitable contribution to the Rubio campaign. With Rubio playing up his pro-family bona fides vis-a-vis his proposed child tax credit increase during Tuesday's debate, he will likely see increased interest from values voters looking for an emphasis on American character. Bush did little to shake that claim during the debate, and if his team rolls out the attack they've telegraphed, he will have done plenty to bulk Rubio's platform up.