Republican presidential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to attendees during a campaign event at the Allard Center on Feb. 7, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.
Landon Nordeman for TIME
February 10, 2016 8:27 PM EST

After a rough couple of days, Marco Rubio says he’s back on track.

The Florida Senator stumbled badly during the last Republican debate, repeating the exact same phrase multiple times under pressure from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He then finished in a disappointing fifth place in New Hampshire Tuesday night.

“I just didn’t finish strong,” Rubio told reporters on his plane to South Carolina Wednesday. “We wanted to do a lot better in New Hampshire, and clearly my performance on Saturday had an impact down the stretch. You learn from that kind of stuff.”

Rubio said the chief lesson he learned from the experience was needing to “[bring] down” barriers between him and voters, and more aggressively articulate policy differences between himself and the other candidates. During the 45 minutes he spent talking to the press, Rubio began expounding on some of those distinctions and talking about his rivals.

On Donald Trump, the businessman who won the New Hampshire primary, Rubio said, “The hard thing about Donald in the short term is he doesn’t have any policy positions. He tells you what he’s going to do, but we won’t tell you how he’s going to do it. I think once this race narrows, the pressure will be on him … I don’t think you can keep saying, ‘Trust me, I’ve got a plan for it.’”

Rubio said that when he called Trump to congratulate him on the New Hampshire win, he joked, “Why are you so greedy, did it have to be a landslide?” Trump won with 35% of the vote.

On Ohio Governor John Kasich, who surged to a second-place finish in New Hampshire, Rubio said he thinks he was successful because he appealed to independent voters. “I think John’s going to be a factor, there’s no doubt about it,” Rubio said.

And on former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a fellow Floridian with whom Rubio has a fraught relationship on the trail, he said, “I … have more experience in foreign policy and national security than he does. I just do.”

Read More: Rubio: No Hard Feelings Over Christie’s Debate Tactics

Rubio said he thinks he’s poised to do well in South Carolina, because he “[likes] the issue set that’s important there.”

“It’s a big national-security state,” he said. “Who on that stage has had more experience or has shown better judgment and better understanding of the foreign policy and national-security issues than I have? The governors haven’t dealt with foreign policy. In the case of John Kasich, in a long time. In the case of Jeb Bush, ever.”

He said that if he didn’t think he would win the nomination, he would drop out, and that he is going to continue to stay relentlessly on-message despite the recent attacks of repetition.

“You only get a few chances to connect with voters. The vast majority of people that cast votes in an election are not sitting in front of a TV all day breathing politics. They’re living their lives … and they get political news in bits and pieces. So you’ve got to drive a message if you want them to know who you are, and you’ve got to be consistent about it,” Rubio said.

But he also acknowledged that it has been an unpredictable, crazy campaign so far. “Who knows what happens next?” he said. “It’s an interesting ride, to say the least.”

Write to Tessa Berenson at

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