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Rubio Stumbles at Crucial Debate Before New Hampshire

5 minute read

Marco Rubio’s polished debate performances helped lift him into serious contention for the Republican nomination. Now a rocky performance onstage Saturday night in New Hampshire could slow his momentum.

Just 72 hours before polls close in New Hampshire, Rubio was roughed up by Chris Christie in a series of exchanges that amplified rivals’ claims that he is a callow candidate who relies on scripted rhetoric. The debate was barely a few minutes old when the trouble began with a question to Rubio about his experience.

Defending his stint in the Senate, Rubio rattled off a carefully honed reply, rich with the patriotic juxtapositions that have propelled his rise. “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Rubio said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.”

“When I’m President,” Rubio continued, “we are going to re-embrace all the things that made America the greatest nation in the world and we are going to leave our children with what they deserve: the single greatest nation in the history of the world.”

Innocuous enough. But then Christie, the consummate street brawler, began swinging. “You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t,” the struggling New Jersey governor began, jabbing Rubio for skipping a vote on a terrorist-sanctions bill that the Floridian cites as a key Senate accomplishment. “That’s not leadership,” Christie continued. “That’s truancy.”

Rubio fired back by condemning Christie’s economic stewardship of New Jersey. But he ran into trouble with his carefully prepared pivot. As the sparring continued, Rubio returned twice more to the same riff that President Obama had sought to purposefully transform the fundamental character of the country. The argument may play well with Republican voters, but the near-identical repetition appeared to support the notion that Rubio is merely a skilled performance artist who survives on precooked sound bites.

And Christie pounced. “There it is,” Christie noted. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”

In presidential stagecraft, the worst injuries are always self-inflicted. Christie laid the trap and Rubio staggered into it, lending credence to claims that his soaring oratory is the product of careful prep work. Seemingly rattled by the misstep, or perhaps wanting to make the missteps seem intentional, he repeated the line a fourth time later in the debate.

For the past year, Rubio has run an under-the-radar campaign, with carefully staged events and a staff that shields him from the press. All week, Christie has warned that he would take “the boy in the bubble out of the bubble” before voters cast their ballots in the state on which his presidential hopes hinge.

“He’s a creation of the media because of these canned 30-second speeches, and you can’t beat Hillary Clinton with canned 30-second speeches,” Mike DuHaime, Christie’s senior strategist, said of Rubio, who has cast himself as the most viable Republican candidate in a general election. Said DuHaime: “If he performs like that against Hillary Clinton, he’s going to get crushed.”

Rubio is hoping to parlay a strong third-place showing in Iowa into a New Hampshire result that cements his standing in the top tier and chokes off oxygen to rivals like Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Christie. Each of those governors face uncertain futures if they do not do well here on Tuesday, and so Bush and Christie have forged a tacit alliance in a bid to stanch Rubio’s momentum.

With Rubio reeling, a fellow Floridian tried for a knockout blow. “Marco Rubio is a gifted politician,” Bush said of his former protégé, “but we’ve tried it the old way with Barack Obama, with soaring eloquence … We didn’t get a leader. We got someone who wants to divide the country up.”

Rubio’s advisers have emphasized debate performance as a pillar of their plan to win the nomination. But at a pivotal moment, the same message discipline that sparked his rise in the polls left him looking formulaic. Before the debate was even over, a rival campaign had collected the exchanges and stitched them into a damning 36-second clip.

It was the kind of night where even a moment of lighthearted banter became an invitation for attacks. Asked by debate moderators for his pick in Sunday night’s Super Bowl, Rubio said that he had been rooting for the Denver Broncos, but was changing his choice to Carolina Panthers. Within moments, Bush strategists took to Twitter to mock him for flip-flopping.

When it was over, Rubio aides put a positive spin on the candidate’s performance. “It doesn’t matter what we think. It doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what voters think,” said Todd Harris, Rubio’s senior adviser, who said the campaign had raked in three times more cash on Saturday night than at any other debate. “The goal tonight was to utterly destroy Marco Rubio. They took their best shot, and they didn’t succeed.”

And he might be right. Time and again in the 2016 race, voters have shattered story lines and made pundits look foolish. But for Rubio’s gleeful rivals, there was a sense that a charmed candidate had finally stumbled, and at the worst possible time.

— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller and Michael Scherer in Manchester

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Write to Alex Altman / Manchester, N.H. at alex_altman@timemagazine.com