As foolish as it may be to pick winners and losers coming out of a debate, particularly in a field so crowded as the Republican presidential contenders and with weeks yet before the first meaningful vote is cast, it's become increasingly obvious that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is emerging as the rising star of his party, boosted by his steady performance in Milwaukee Tuesday night.
Mr. Rubio's command of the issues, both foreign and domestic, is vastly superior to frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Despite his mistaken belief that welders earn more than philosophy majors (Bureau of Labor Statistics data prove otherwise), he wasn't caught in the kind of embarrassing debate moments that can leave you in YouTube hell as your gaffe is endlessly replayed and shared on social media. Mr. Trump was not so fortunate — the putdown by Sen. Rand Paul after the billionaire complained about China's lack of commitment to end its currency manipulation in the TransPacific Partnership ("Hey ... you know, we may want to point out China is not part of this deal") is probably still heating up the Internet even as you read this.
Indeed, if Senator Paul finds himself looking into another line of work, he should inquire about openings in the debate moderating field. He proved far more adept at holding some of his fellow candidates accountable than anyone from Fox Business or The Wall Street Journal, the event's sponsors. There were fewer "gotcha" questions than past debates to be sure, but the lack of follow-up queries or real-time fact-checking beyond Mr. Paul's helpful comments allowed the candidates to make some claims that possessed only the slightest hint of "truthiness." Once again, it was Mr. Paul who had to point out that all this enthusiasm for a "no fly zone" in Syria by candidates like Jeb Bush or Sen. Ted Cruz ignores the reality that the Russians are already flying there and that such a step would thus raise the likelihood of an outright war with a major military power.
Yet when Senator Paul observed that Senator Rubio's plan to add a trillion dollars to defense spending while offering new tax credits to parents didn't reflect a fiscally conservative viewpoint, Mr. Rubio was ready to draw blood, too. He called Mr. Paul an "isolationist" and pointed out that the U.S. economy will be in peril if the military is underfunded to the point where our national security is in danger — a tried and true mainstream Republican pro-military position.
Senator Rubio also seemed to benefit considerably from a kind of benign neglect. His messy financial past and problems with debt and credit cards and missing votes in the U.S. Senate were not raised once, nor did his flip-flop on immigration reform get a mention even though it's a bone of contention for many conservatives. The whole immigration fight is deeply divisive within the GOP — as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Mr. Bush demonstrated when they tried to explain the lunacy of attempting to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants as Mr. Trump insists can be done — yet the party's failure to attract Latino voters is a growing problem. But did anybody draw Mr. Rubio, the 44-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, into that minefield? Not this time.
Senator Rubio has tried to cast himself as the young, energetic leader of the future, a Republican counterpoint to Barack Obama who was also a one-term senator when he decided to run for president. At times during the campaign, it has seemed a stretch — a lack of gravitas, perhaps — but he's one of the only politically-experienced candidates who has been consistently on the rise. Most recent polls show Senator Rubio in third place with about 12 percent of the vote with the neophites Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson comfortably ahead of him and the polarizing, sharp-tongued Senator Cruz only a few points behind.
Based on the Milwaukee debate, the surge is likely to continue as the appeal of the "outsider" candidates dissipates and the Republican electorate wakes up to the reality that they are choosing their party's nominee to be leader of the free world and not a People magazine cover. Mr. Rubio has a compelling life story like Mr. Carson (although here's a hunch — both are likely to face further fact-checking). He has experience in both the state and federal government, and he has a modicum of charisma like the Donald but without the Queens accent. The GOP field may yet face a great deal more reshuffling in the weeks ahead, but increasingly, Senator Rubio appears to be the ultimate fantasy football bet — a sleeper pick with a lot of potential.