Manchester, N.H. — 24 hours after Marco Rubio’s first real stumble on the national stage, he was back on script. A crowd of about 500 had packed into a sports facility covered in green astroturf to hear the Florida senator speak, but somehow he seemed diminished. His voice was difficult to hear, echoing into the space. He wrapped up without taking questions from the audience. These shortcomings weren’t Rubio’s fault, but they reinforced the impression that Chris Christie had dealt him a real blow in Saturday’s Republican debate by mocking his refusal to deviate from a set of canned remarks.
The view in the top echelons of the Rubio campaign has always been that debates can’t help candidates, they can only hurt. As he returned to his prepared remarks on Sunday, it was even more apparent in the wake of Saturday’s misstep that Rubio was playing to type in a way that voters may not even have been aware of before Christie pointed it out. “Now, every time Rubio does one of his ‘son of a bartender’ speeches, people are going to be like, ‘There he goes again,’” says a top Republican operative.
Rubio’s shaky performance Saturday is likely to cement the impression that he lacks an intangible quality, some part of that elusive amalgam that makes a candidate “presidential.” For months, reporters following Rubio on the campaign trail have labored to put their finger on it. Many have said he’s too sunny and too polished for the current Republican moment. Yet others have said that he simply looks too young. National Review’s Rich Lowry argued in January that Rubio has an “affect problem” — that he’s smooth and charming, sure, but he’s not angry, harsh, or biting when the moment demands it. When he’s tried to be, his attempts feel strained.
One Republican operative close to the Rubio campaign puts it to me this way: Rubio, he says, has “zero swagger, zero cockiness.” Another political observer says what he lacks is stage presence, an ability to appear as if he’s “quietly dominating everybody in the room.” And it’s true, Marco Rubio will never gut a challenger with a smirk and a nod, as George W. Bush did to Al Gore, or by gently mocking his argument, as Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter: “There you go again . . .”
Reagan later said he delivered the line spontaneously — because, well, “It just seemed to be the thing to say.” That’s probably not how Rubio and his disciplined, cautious team would explain any of their big campaign moments. When Rubio has attacked, as when he knocked Jeb Bush down on the debate stage, he has done so in a way that has been both obviously rehearsed and expertly delivered.
#share#Caught off guard, Rubio has been hesitant to throw a punch at any of his rivals on the debate stage. In the sixth Republican presidential debate in Charleston, he was asked about an ad aired by his super PAC that hit Christie for supporting Common Core and expanding Medicaid in New Jersey, among other things. Rubio’s response foreshadowed his wobbly performance in Manchester.
One Republican operative close to the Rubio campaign puts it to me this way: Rubio, he says, has ‘zero swagger, zero cockiness.’
“We have a president of the United States that is undermining this country’s security,” he said, before moderator Neil Cavuto cut him off. “That’s not my question,” Cavuto said. After more prodding, Rubio responded, “I like Chris Christie, but we cannot afford to have a president of the United States that supports Common Core. . . . Chris Christie wrote a check to Planned Parenthood. All I’m saying is our next president has to be someone that undoes the damage Barack Obama has done to this country. It cannot be someone that agrees with his agenda.”
The super PAC ad, which aired here in New Hampshire, had done real damage to Christie’s prospects: At one point, the New Jersey governor appeared to have some momentum in the Granite State, but he had watched his approval rate plummet 20 points over the course of just two weeks as the ad aired across the state. Given a chance to deliver a knockout punch to Christie’s campaign in Charleston, Rubio refused.
#related#Something stronger may be required to defeat Hillary Clinton, but the real question is whether Rubio needs more swagger and edge if he hopes to become the GOP’s standard-bearer. Discipline isn’t exactly a bad thing in politics and, while Rubio’s deficiencies are somewhat difficult to pinpoint, those of his challengers are relatively easy to define: Jeb Bush is boring; Ted Cruz is grating; John Kasich is undisciplined; and Christie is a bully.
As the clock ticks toward primary day here in New Hampshire, there’s a growing sense that while the state may not crown the Republican nominee, it will nonetheless prove a turning point in the race by providing a view of who is actually plausible, and whether there’s a chance the outsiders will ultimately give way to the mainstreamers. In that regard, what New Hampshire makes of Rubio’s qualities — the ones he possesses and the ones he lacks — will be important.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.