Manchester, N.H. — Days ago, Marco Rubio’s supporters thought it possible they’d be gathering at the Radisson Hotel here tonight in downtown Manchester to celebrate a come-from-behind victory and perhaps, even, the demolition of Donald Trump.
Instead, they were mourning a defeat. When Rubio took the stage, the final results hadn’t yet been announced. Rubio was then in fifth place, but locked in a close race with Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, then in third and fourth places, respectively, and that’s where the three would remain when the final votes were tallied. Ohio governor John Kasich finished well ahead of the pack in second place, with 16 percent of the vote, less than half of Trump’s gargantuan 35 percent plurality.
Even before the Iowa caucuses, Rubio’s brain trust had gamed out the scenarios and reasoned that, among the governors, Kasich could finish ahead of them. But they knew they had to fend off Jeb Bush, and they failed. Ted Cruz had not even factored into their calculations, and he bested them too.
What happened? Rubio’s stumble on the debate stage here on Saturday evening, his first major misstep of the campaign season, was every bit as real, and as apparent to voters, as the media made it out to be. Rubio had turned himself into a caricature. Dan Quayle isn’t stupid, but don’t try convincing many Americans of that. And Rubio may not be robotic, but as costumed robots chased him across snow-covered New Hampshire over the past 48 hours, as jokes about his robotic campaign performances appeared on three separate late-night comedy shows, and as Rubio himself pulled another halt-and-repeat routine on stage at a Nashua rally Monday evening, it was apparent that Rubio the robot had become a thing. And things, like Quayle’s “potatoe” and Al Gore’s earth-toned wardrobe, are difficult to shake.
Rubio is going to try to shake it. And in fact, he began to do so when he confronted the crestfallen crowd at his so-called victory rally here on Tuesday evening.
“I know many of you are disappointed with tonight. I’m disappointed with tonight,” he said. That sort of directness, particularly when it reveals vulnerability, is rare in politics. It also cut against the caricature of the candidate as a pre-programmed drone. “Our disappointment is not on you, it’s on me,” he continued. “I did not do well on Saturday night. That will never happen again.” The audience erupted as if the decision desks had just declared him victor.
Rubio will have more chances to present himself to voters anew, including at the next Republican presidential debate, in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday. The more complicated challenge for his team may now be charting a new path to the nomination after failing to rid the so-called establishment lane of competitors.
The Rubio campaign has been tight-lipped about its strategy. Conant is notorious for telling reporters that the campaign doesn’t “talk process.” But for the first time this campaign season, Rubio himself gave a glimpse into how he and his aides are thinking about the race. On Tuesday morning outside Gilbert H. Hood middle school in the town of Derry, about 13 miles outside of Manchester, he was asked what a win would look like here in the Granite State.
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“What people have to remember is the delegates,” Rubio said. “In a race like this with so many people running, delegates are going to be really relevant. And the delegates here, everyone over 10 percent is going to get a proportional share of delegates.” He continued, “We got seven delegates last week, only one less than Ted Cruz, who won. We’re going to get more here tonight and we’re going to keep going and we feel great.”
The Rubio campaign has, until now, stressed the intangibles: buzz, energy, momentum. Those are gone, and even before the results were in, Rubio’s talk had turned to the tangible — the gears and pulleys that will help a nominee capture the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the nomination. It was a subtle indication that the contest in New Hampshire would prove a turning point in the race not by narrowing the field but by indicating that the prospect of an all-out slog was imminent.
Bush’s performance on Tuesday complicates matters for Rubio not only in South Carolina but also down the line.
Bush’s fourth-place finish is a setback for Rubio not only because Bush is certain to remain in the race through the next contests in South Carolina and Nevada, and potentially into March, but because the Bush team, as my colleague Tim Alberta noted, already has a national organization in place to turn out voters as the primary season progresses and plenty of money to keep the candidate afloat. Bush heads into South Carolina with the endorsement of the state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, and with his brother, George W. Bush, who remains the most popular politician in the state, set to campaign alongside him.
Bush’s performance on Tuesday complicates matters for Rubio not only in South Carolina but also down the line. Rubio had hoped to use New Hampshire to narrow the contest to a three-man race in which he would face off with Cruz and Trump heading into Super Tuesday, or the so-called SEC primary, on March 1. That contest is heavily dominated by Southern, conservative, and heavily evangelical states favorable to Cruz, who has gone so far as to call them his “firewall.”
The Rubio team had been skeptical of that, not only because such northern states as Vermont and Massachusetts will vote then, too, but also because the delegates are doled out proportionally, in most cases to the top two winners in each congressional district – two delegates to the district winner, one to the second-place finisher – and the Rubio team was confident it would rack up enough delegates to remain competitive heading into the March 15 contests, which take place on ground more favorable to Rubio. What they did not factor in was that they might be competing with Bush for those delegates, that the moderate vote might split.
“Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, we’ll see you in a few weeks. We’re gonna come win!” Rubio said. “And South Carolina, we’re on the way.” Unfortunately for Rubio, so is his onetime mentor. Heading into the Palmetto State primary, Rubio must convince people he’s not a robot with more of the candor he displayed here Tuesday evening, and his team will grudgingly have to factor Bush into the equation.
– Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review.