Yes, Marco Rubio hurt himself last night, if for no other reason than he had enjoyed a really good week, full of endorsements, a steady rise to second in most New Hampshire polls, and glowing media coverage. The perception of a bad night on the debate stage – really one particularly bad exchange – interrupts the momentum.
Rubio fans shouldn’t deny it; even the very best ones fumble, and sometimes in the spotlight when the stakes are high. Peyton Manning stinks up the joint in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks in 2014. Mariano Rivera blows it in the ninth inning of the 2001 World Series. LeBron James wilts in the NBA Championship against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. (Sorry for the bad memories, Broncos, Yankees and Miami Heat fans.)
The gaffe is going to hurt him because it’s so unexpected, in an area perceived to be Rubio’s strength. Since I first interviewed him in August 2009, Rubio came across as prepared, smooth, cool under fire, a natural communicator. Rubio seemed to panic, and most of us thought he was the kind of candidate who didn’t panic anymore.
Keep in mind, one of the reasons you’re hearing so much about Rubio’s bobble last night is because an enormous number of people are invested in that narrative: all of Rubio’s rivals, particularly Trump, Christie, Cruz and Bush; television producers who want good video and drama and are eager to see a new storyline (“Can Rubio Come Back?”); Rubio campaign correspondents tired of hearing the same speech from Rubio at every stop; and Democrats and the liberal media (I repeat myself) who are eager to defuse a candidate who could be seriously threatening to them in general election.
Still, what’s at the heart of the critique? That Rubio rehearses his answers? It’s campaigning malpractice not to do that. That Rubio often answers in 25-seconds? That’s usually how much time he has in these debates. That Rubio often repeats his lines? Hey, did you know Chris Christie used to be a prosecutor? That John Kasich’s dad was a mailman? That Donald Trump thinks this country never wins anymore? All of these candidates repeat their lines. Most Americans don’t watch a lot of politics; every appearance is an introduction to voters.
Is the critique that Rubio’s not smart, he’s just good at memorizing his lines? Eh, probably not, Christie’s own statement was, “I like Marco Rubio, he’s a smart person and good guy, but he simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States.” (The guy elected to statewide office in 2009 is knocking the guy elected to statewide office in 2010.)
Rubio can and probably will undo the damage by being himself. If you’re accused of only having 25-second answers, sit down for interviews and give lengthy, detailed answers. When challenged on not having done much in the Senate, Rubio has to emphasize his work to eliminate the risk corridors in Obamacare. (Our Yuval Levin: “Rubio was without question the first and most significant congressional voice on this subject, and if he hadn’t done the work he did, the risk-corridor neutralization provision would not have been in last year’s (or this year’s) budget bill.”) When he’s accused of never running anything, Rubio should talk about running Florida’s House and passing the largest tax cut in Florida’s history (at least to that point), reforms to the state insurance market and (ahem) new restrictions on eminent domain.
Rubio can overcome this; the problem is that he had been closing on Trump in New Hampshire and now anything but a distant second seems hard to picture. That makes South Carolina, traditionally one of the king-makers on the GOP primary schedule, much more important for Rubio.