Manchester, N.H. — Marco Rubio’s momentum just hit a brick wall in the Granite State.
In the home stretch of a New Hampshire primary famous for its last-minute voting swings, the Florida senator stumbled during Saturday night’s debate under attack from Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Both candidates will find themselves on the ropes if they can’t finish strong here on Tuesday, and they ganged up on their chief rival early, questioning his readiness for the White House. Rubio appeared rattled by the onslaught, repeating the same talking point three times in a heavily scrutinized sequence that was easily his worst of the entire debate season.
Each of Iowa’s top-three finishers — Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, returning to center stage after he skipped last week’s debate — had cause to believe they would be in the crosshairs of their opponents as the night began. But with Trump viewed as the clear front-runner to win New Hampshire, and Cruz courting a narrower slice of conservative voters in the state, it was Rubio who absorbed the most damaging blows as both Christie and Bush tried to stave off electoral extinction.
Polls have shown Rubio, Christie, Bush, and John Kasich competing for the same sprawling class of center-right voters in New Hampshire. Rubio had been surging coming into the debate, and seemed to be achieving some separation from the pack thanks to his stronger-than-expected third-place finish in Iowa. But a rocky performance at St. Anselm’s College may have opened the door for his rivals to halt his climb.
Rubio struggled almost from the outset, as both Christie and Bush pressed their argument that the 44-year-old first-term senator is not prepared for the presidency. Rubio and his team had spent the past several days preparing for precisely this attack, and it showed: If anything, he was too prepared.
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After Christie’s initial insult, Rubio responded by criticizing New Jersey’s economic performance, before pivoting to push back on the argument that he’s just as inexperienced as Obama was when elected. “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Rubio said.
Christie, who has recently taken to criticizing Rubio’s recitation of identical talking points at campaign events, pounced.
“That’s what Washington, D.C. does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him,” Christie said.
It could have ended there, if Rubio hadn’t turned around and repeated himself, almost verbatim, in response. “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Rubio said.
“There it is,” Christie said, almost gleefully. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
To which Rubio could only respond with the same talking point again: “We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he is doing.”
It appeared simply that Rubio had forgotten which lines he’d already delivered; to viewers at home, the repetitive nature of his remarks must have made it seem as if the television had been rewound. The episode gave fuel to critics who complain that Rubio is robotic on the stump, sparking instant ridicule on social media and among rival campaigns. The Twitter handle @RubioGlitch was created. Democratic groups coined the term “RubioBot.” Correct the Record, a pro-Hillary Clinton group, immediately produced a video, “Rubio on Repeat,” for viral consumption.
Rubio’s team, knowing the negative reviews of his performance were already rolling in, claimed a victory of sorts in the debate’s aftermath.
Rubio’s team, knowing the negative reviews of his performance were already rolling in, claimed a victory of sorts in the debate’s aftermath. “The Christie campaign and a couple of other campaigns said that they had one goal tonight, which was to utterly destroy Marco Rubio, to knock him out, to leave him dead on the floor,” said senior adviser Todd Harris. “They took their best shot and they didn’t succeed.”
It’s true that the night was not without highlights for Rubio. He spoke authoritatively on foreign policy, and near the end of the debate got one of the loudest cheers of the night for answering that he would err on the side of human life when questioned about whether his position on abortion is too extreme.
Despite those highs, the early damage, sustained when the nearly two-and-a-half hour debate was drawing maximum viewership, may have breathed fresh life into Rubio’s rivals, Christie, Bush, and Kasich, who all enjoyed stellar nights.
#share#But the chief beneficiary of Rubio’s stumble could actually turn out to be Cruz. Polls have of New Hampshire have shown him running competitively in the low to mid teens, and he looms as a quiet threat to finish second behind Trump if any combination of Christie, Bush, and Kasich succeeds in peeling away votes from Rubio on Tuesday.
Following easily his weakest debate performance last week in Iowa — “ROUGH NIGHT FOR CRUZ” blared the Des Moines Register’s front page in that debate’s aftermath — the Texas senator was polished and assertive Saturday night. He spoke movingly of losing his half-sister to drug addiction, an issue of urgency in this state. And unlike his fellow senator, Cruz came under virtually no scrutiny from his opponents.
Trump’s one prolonged dust-up came in an exchange with Bush over eminent domain that saw him attack the crowd — and get booed for it.
The lone exception came in the debate’s opening minutes, when ABC’s moderators brought up Ben Carson’s accusation that Cruz’s campaign employed dirty tricks during Monday’s caucus, telling voters that Carson was dropping out. Carson previously called for Cruz to fire or punish staff involved in spreading what turned out to be false rumors. He used the incident Saturday night to attack Cruz as the same type of Washington insider he rails against. “It gives us a very good example of certain types of Washington ethics,” Carson said. “Washington ethics basically says, if it’s legal, you do what you need to do in order to win.”
Cruz had a prepared response to the answer, charting the timeline of how his staff misunderstood a report from CNN. But the response was long and almost too specific, and the most notable moment of the exchange came when Cruz acknowledged doing exactly what Carson had accused him of.
“Ben,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
Trump, back on stage after boycotting last week’s Iowa debate, disappeared for several long stretches and was not a dominant presence Saturday night. Like Cruz, he evaded opponents’ attacks for most of the evening. His one prolonged dust-up came in an exchange with Bush over eminent domain that saw him attack the crowd — and get booed for it.
“How tough is it to take away property from an elderly woman?” Bush said of Trump, referring to the time Trump attempted to use eminent domain to remove a woman from her Atlantic City home, where he was building a casino.
Trump tried, unsuccessfully, to interject. “Let me talk. Let me talk. Quiet,” he insisted, as the crowd began to boo.
“That’s all of his donors and special interests out there,” Trump said, attempting to dismiss his hecklers.
#related#“We needed tickets. You can’t get them. You know who has the tickets for the — I’m talking about, to the television audience? Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money. That’s who it is. The RNC told us. We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they’re not loving me, the reason they’re not — excuse me,” Trump continued as the booing got louder.
“The reason they’re not loving me is, I don’t want their money. I’m going to do the right thing for the American public. I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money. And I’m the only one up here that can say that.”
Trump had a tough night with the audience, which jeered him on at least two other occasions. But he did own perhaps the evening’s biggest applause line. When the moderators went down the stage asking each Republican contender about waterboarding, and whether the United States should reintroduce the controversial interrogation method, Trump, unlike his competitors, did not mince words.
“I would bring back waterboarding,” he said. “And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse.”
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review. Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.