There is no way to sugarcoat Marco Rubio’s serious blunder at last night’s debate. Not only was he unprepared for an attack he should have seen coming from Christie and Bush – he played to type. At the very moment Christie was skewering him as a wind-up candidate who repeats memorized talking points, he repeated his talking points. There were so many ripostes he might have delivered to Christie’s argument that executive experience is everything. He could have mentioned, for example, that one of the most important decisions an executive makes, and one of the most crucial the next president will make, is appointments to the court. On this, Christie has been extremely weak to unacceptable. But that’s l’esprit de l’escalier (wit of the staircase) and everyone, including doubtless Rubio himself, can think of other lost opportunities. The campaign will continue. There will be other debates. Rubio is usually quick on his feet and presumably will come away from last night recognizing that canned talking points can sometimes keep you “on message” and sometimes must be ditched in favor of spontaneity.
That said, other candidates had weak moments as well last night, particularly Trump (if it matters) and Cruz, and Rubio’s second half performance was as good as any we’ve seen from him. He returned to the stage with a clearer head and delivered the best response on ISIS of the evening, showing deep knowledge of the region and an understanding of the threat without seeming to be thoughtlessly or demagogically bellicose. His abortion answer was pitch perfect and contrasted sharply with Christie’s revealing slip when he described abortion is cases of rape or incest as “self-defense” on the part of the woman, and when he used language (beloved of the left) about caring about life “not just in the womb.”
Still, Christie had his best debate of the campaign just when he most needed one. The question is whether he was perceived as a little too obnoxious, leaving another governor, Jeb Bush or John Kasich, to reap the benefits of any slowing of Rubio’s momentum. For reasons I’ve stated before, I don’t think voters are going to choose a third Bush for president, though Bush had his best performance last night as well.
As Rich Lowry noted, the press will hammer Rubio’s shaky start, perhaps making it the “narrative” of the next two days. If that’s the case, I suspect the real beneficiary will be Kasich, who is a good fit for the New Hampshire electorate, had a fine debate (no one attacked him much), and is less grating than Christie.