Florida Sen. Marco Rubio walked into Saturday night’s debate with a target on his back but confident in his abilities, and he limped out of it humbled. Rubio crumbled under a relentless assault by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who baited the better-funded and better-polling rival into repeating the same line over and over again, while lambasting him as an ineffective member of Congress. Rubio has tried to spin the moment as an assault on Obama, while his campaign has argued it wasn’t that big of a deal because its fundraising was up.
But Rubio’s counter-attacks on snowstorms and New Jersey’s credit downgrades barely left a mark while Christie’s barbs drew blood. Making matters worse for Rubio was that the attack was hardly unpredictable, with Christie’s rhetoric in the days leading up to the debate flashing like a neon sign on who and how he was going to target in the debate. The debate took place on Saturday night before the Super Bowl, and the moment was less-splashy than Rick Perry’s famous “oops,” but the real damage was done not with voters, but the donor and political class who were prepared to all-but-anoint Rubio if he had a strong finish in New Hampshire. Now they’ll give the governors another shot.
But which one? Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich all had their best debate of the cycle, and all helped their chances. Saturday’s debate validates the viability of a lane for governors but did little to settle who could or should be in its lead position. The three are poised to split the vote in New Hampshire, which may not be enough to force the other two out. Bush and Kasich both benefited from Christie’s criticism of Rubio without being involved in the fight. Bush’s attack on Donald Trump over eminent domain finally rang true as Bush uncharacteristically refused to back down, with the issue potentially a significant vulnerability in New Hampshire.
Ted Cruz pivoted repeatedly to the general election in the debate as his chief rivals sparred. But he struggled to explain his campaign’s efforts to attract Ben Carson supporters before the Iowa caucuses, an issue that will continue to be an issue for his candidacy as the race moves to South Carolina. Carson’s awkward entry on the stage set the tone for his uneven performance, his role now may be that of Cruz spoiler.
Madeleine Albright says there’s a “special place in hell” for women who don’t back Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders and Larry David yuk it up on “Saturday Night Live.” And watch the worst jokes on the campaign trail in 2 minutes.
Here are your must-reads:
Rubio Stumbles at Crucial Debate Before New Hampshire
A self-inflicted injury could stop his momentum [TIME]
The Three Governors Turn Against Senator Rubio
TIME’s Philip Elliott on the alliance of convenience
Ted Cruz Hides Truth With Debate Claim About Ben Carson Report
The Iowa winner tries some damage control, TIME’s Maya Rhodan writes
Ted Cruz Embraces Ron Paul Liberty Voters in New Hampshire
TIME’s Alex Altman on his appeal to libertarians
“It’s what I believe. And it’s what I’m going to continue to say because it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running.” — Marco Rubio to ABC’s This Week on why he repeated the same phrase four times in Saturday’s debate
“I never want to make Chris Christie mad.” — Sen. Lindsey Graham before introducing Jeb Bush at a campaign event Sunday
Bits and Bites
Marco Rubio’s Go-To Lines [Washington Post]