Jeb Bush’s campaign spent much of the last week attempting to paint Marco Rubio as the GOP’s version of Barack Obama in 2008 – calling him young, inexperienced and only driven by his political ambitions.
On the debate stage Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado, the first term senator from Florida lived up to the Obama comparison – saying there was no reason for him to wait in line and that the country needed a change – and with it put in what many observers said was the strongest performance of the night.
"He’s a very articulate guy and he’s quick enough to catch those hard edge questions and turn them around in his favor," Cal Jilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, told Fox News Latino.
Fending off attacks from both the moderators and rival candidate Bush, Rubio pushed back on media criticism of his voting record, calling it an example of bias against conservatives, and saying that Bush was only piling on the attack because "we're running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me will help you."
"I’m not running against Governor Bush, I’m not running against anyone on stage," Rubio said. "I’m running for the president of the United States."
Making the rounds of the morning talk shows on Thursday, Rubio continued his strong performance from the previous night – espousing a clean politics agenda as he sees his stock on the presidential campaign stage soar.
"My campaign is not going to be about attacking anybody else," Rubio told CBS. "My campaign is going to be [about] who I am and what is important for our country and the future of America and that’s what I'm going to continue to focus on."
Analysts said that the Cuban-American politician’s personal history paired with his quick thinking on the debate stage is appealing to voters in a way that his Republican establishment challenger Bush is not.
Rubio on Wednesday played down questions about both his youth and his financial situations, using them both as opportunities to highlight his parent’s immigrant background and his own family’s struggles with paying bills, loans and for his children’s education.
"Marco Rubio walked into the debate very well prepared," Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told FNL. "People really connect with Rubio’s personal story and his personality…Rubio has a much better story than Bush."
Coming off two very strong debate performances, the question that many political observers have is whether Rubio’s on-stage success will translate into success in the polls and among donors and delegates.
The Florida senator still lags woefully behind in campaign cash and has so far not come close to landing the number of endorsements that his in-state rival has. As of Wednesday, Bush had 36 high-level endorsements compared to Rubio’s eight.
Also while Rubio has seen his stock in the polls get a boost from his debate performances, he still isn’t in striking distance of frontrunners Donald Trump, either nationally or in the all-important polls coming out of Iowa.
The latest CBS/New York Times poll has Rubio pulling in 8 percent of the vote nationally, compared to Carson’s 26 and Trump’s 22 percent. In Iowa, Monmouth’s polling institute found that Carson grabbed 29 percent, while Cruz has 10.2 percent with fellow Cuban-American senator Ted Cruz nipping at his heels with 9.6 percent.
Still, many see Rubio as the best shot at uniting a fractured Republican Party by bringing together its establishment and insurgent wings – and with it emerging as the party’s choice in the current sprawling presidential field.
"Marco Rubio is positioning himself to be the mainstream, conservative candidate with a little Tea Party streak," Jilson said.
On Thursday morning, during his victory lap on the early morning shows, Rubio, however, seemed less focused on winning the nomination and more on prepping for the next time he gets on the debate stage.
"The election wasn’t decided last night, and we’re going to have another debate in 14 days, and that will replace in people’s memory this one, so it’s part of a process," Rubio said, according to the Washington Post.