ATLANTA (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is downplaying his rivalry with Jeb Bush after the third GOP debate, instead focusing criticism on Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A testy exchange between Rubio and Bush, his former mentor, helped define Wednesday night’s event and could help reshape the GOP race as Rubio tries to capitalize on Bush’s struggles.
Bush, the former Florida governor who helped guide Rubio as a rising state legislator, said during the debate that Rubio should resign from the U.S. Senate to campaign rather than continue to miss votes. “What is it, like a French work week?” Bush said.
Rubio rebuffed him, saying, “My campaign is going to be about the future of America; it’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage.”
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He repeated the higher-road theme Thursday, telling ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he has “admiration” for Bush and wants only to underscore policy differences between the two.
Though Rubio brushed off Bush, his attendance may get more scrutiny. Fellow candidate Ted Cruz on Thursday canceled campaign appearances in Nevada. His spokeswoman the Texas senator had to return to Washington for scheduled votes.
Bush, meanwhile, was scheduled to campaign Thursday in New Hampshire, which his aides have identified as his top priority among early voting states. The son and brother of presidents, Bush maintains a financial advantage, mostly due to the “Right to Rise” Super PAC backing his bid. But he’s mired in single digits in most polls and recently announced pay cuts for his campaign staff. Rubio is widely seen as a likely beneficiary of Bush donors and supporters should they defect.
Rubio’s aggressive performance — along with multiple instances of candidates blasting CNBC’s debate moderators and the debate in general — overshadowed two other men who are leading many national polls: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businessman Donald Trump.
In Colorado on Thursday, Carson criticized the debate format, saying there should be more time for lengthy statements laying out an agenda. “Debates are intended to help the American people get to know the candidates,” he told reporters. “What it’s turned into is ‘gotcha.'”
He said he’s reaching out to other campaigns to call for wholesale changes in debate structure but stopped short of calling for a boycott of upcoming debates.
Separately, Rubio took veiled shots at Trump and Carson, neither of whom has held public office.
“This campaign gives everybody a chance to learn about these issues and express themselves,” Rubio said. “We haven’t seen that sort of discussion from some of the candidates.”
But he saved his biggest barbs for Clinton.
On CBS’s “This Morning,” Rubio stuck to his claim in the debate that Clinton and other Obama administration officials lied about the nature of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, when Clinton was secretary of state. The attack killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
“It was a planned attack,” Rubio said Thursday, and “not a spontaneous uprising.”
A central Republican argument is that Obama, Clinton and others chose not to identify the attack as a terrorist act in order to protect the president as he sought re-election.
In fact, the day after the attack, President Barack Obama called it an “act of terror,” a phrase he would repeat several more times. Clinton, in her testimony last week before a House panel, said the intelligence community was receiving conflicting information in the hours after the attack and that she was concerned about demonstrations in capital cities in other countries over an inflammatory video. Clinton also said the suspected Libyan militant accused in the attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattala, has cited the video as a factor.
David Axelrod, Obama chief political strategist in 2012, said Thursday on CNN that Rubio and other Republicans continue to peddle “mythology” about the attack. “There was great concern about what happened,” in Libya, Axelrod said of the Obama administration and re-election campaign. “But there was no great concern about the politics of that at the moment.”
Regardless, Clinton remains an obvious foil for Republican hopefuls trying to appeal to conservative voters.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent much of Wednesday night and Thursday morning targeting Clinton. “I’m the kind of person you’re going to want on the stage, you’re going to need on the stage to take on Hillary Clinton next November,” he told CNN.
Carly Fiorina, a former technology executive, argued on CNN that Clinton’s and Obama’s economic policies hurt women. Fiorina, the only woman among the GOP contenders, said she’s best positioned to make that argument in a general election.
Campaigning herself Thursday, Clinton was dismissive of her would-be rivals. “You would have bene better off watching the World Series,” she said during a campaign stop in Berlin, New Hampshire. “The debate in my view was a swing and a miss.”
Associated Press reporters Nick Riccardi in Lakewood, Colorado, and Lisa Lerer from Berlin, New Hampshire, contributed.
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