Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) struggled to fend off attacks from a Republican field that largely aimed its fire at the senator during the final Republican presidential debate ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primaries.
Rubio has been surging in New Hampshire following a stronger-than-expected, third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. But the full spectrum of political opinions appeared to agree afterward that Rubio had a rough night during the ABC-hosted affair.
The left-leaning Huffington Post blared on its front page: “MARCOBOT MALFUNCTIONS,” a reference to his supposedly “canned,” talking-point answers. Bill Kristol, the conservative editor of The Weekly Standard, said on the network that the debate “damaged him.”
James Fallows, The Atlantic’s national correspondent, proclaimed Rubio’s debate performance the “most self-destructive” in decades. The right-leaning Drudge Report declared that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) “knock[ed] Rubio off balance.”
That was a reference to Rubio’s first perceived stumble of the night. It came during an early, five-minute exchange with Christie, who seemed eager to get days’ worth of campaign-trail feuding out into the open. Rubio tripped up by pivoting four times to a rehearsed line about President Barack Obama, a moment that quickly went viral.
Christie, making perhaps a do-or-die stand in New Hampshire, reamed into the freshman senator as inexperienced. He suggested Rubio espoused many of the same potential problems as Obama, who was also a first-term senator upon his election in 2008.
After Rubio was pressed to name his accomplishments in the US Senate, Christie pounced.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t,” Christie told Rubio.
“I like Marco Rubio. And he’s a smart person and a good guy. But he simply doesn’t have the experience to be president of the United States,” he added.
The two candidates proceeded to exchange barbs over each other’s records and political character. But Christie seemed to notice the common element in Rubio’s responses when he argued that Obama, despite his inexperience, knows “exactly what he’s doing.”
“Let’s dispel with his fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Rubio said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country.”
In his response, Christie began pointing at Rubio and accusing him of rehearsed, scripted lines.
“You see everybody, I want the people at home to think about this,” he said. “That’s what Washington, DC, does: The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information. And then the memorized, 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
Moments later, after being called out by Christie, Rubio attempted to defend himself by using a similar line.
“Here’s the bottom line: This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true,” Rubio said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
“There it is!” he said. “There it is! The memorized 25-second speech.”
Within minutes, rival campaigns were passing around a brutal super-cut video of Rubio repeating the line four times. A “Marco Rubio Glitch” account also sprang up on Twitter, firing off different versions of the “Obama knows exactly what he’s doing” line.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) also added to the criticism against Rubio, echoing Christie’s attacks.
“Marco Rubio is a gifted politician, and he may have the skills to be president of the United States,” Bush said. But, he argued, the experience was not yet there.
It wasn’t clear how the exchange would, if at all, serve to blunt Rubio’s momentum. He currently sits in second place in a Real Clear Politics average of recent Granite State surveys, behind front-runner Donald Trump.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and the president of the Potomac Strategy Group, said the exchange would likely be played over and over again through Tuesday’s primaries. He argued it would “wash away” Rubio’s other, more positive debate moments, such as a late-debate answer on abortion that earned him applause.
“Rubio’s inability to adequately and specifically respond to Christie’s criticism will dog him for at least 48 hours, halt his momentum in New Hampshire, and likely extend the race for several establishment-lane competitors,” he told Business Insider. “Rubio had a number of other good moments, but it was washed away by the only thing that people are talking about.”
“Chris Christie just blew this race wide open,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough agreed on Twitter.
For its part, the Rubio campaign argued that his rivals had tried — yet “failed” — to “take out” Rubio on Saturday night.
“Marco stood up for his principles, he demonstrated his deep understanding of the issues, laid out his record of accomplishment, and made the case for why he’s the conservative who can beat Hillary Clinton,” Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager, wrote in an email to supporters.
He added: “AND YES, HE STUCK TO HIS GUNS ON WHY OBAMA HAS BEEN AN AWFUL PRESIDENT!!!”
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