Sen. Marco Rubio was ready to be targeted at Saturday’s night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, but he took a beating anyway.
The Florida senator was the candidate to top on Saturday. Polls put him in second place in New Hampshire, behind Donald Trump. But Rubio’s strong third place finish in Iowa’s caucuses has helped him surge.
Indeed, Rubio is racking up endorsements and is close to consolidating support from rivals to take on the mantle of party establishment favorite to take on insurgent leaders: Donald Trump or Iowa victor Ted Cruz of Texas.
But Saturday’s debate set Rubio back. Appearing rattled, the senator left millions of Americans wondering if debate host ABC faced technical difficulties as he repeated the same talking point throughout the event.
Rubio wanted to avoid clashes with rivals, stay upbeat, and pitch himself as the candidate best positioned to challenge Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. His tool was a soundbite.
“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 of the United States, we are going to re-embrace all the things that made America the greatest nation in the world,” he said.
The tactic set Rubio up for a drubbing by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie is desperate for traction in New Hampshire. He has spent most of the time campaigning in the state but remains mired in sixth place in an average of the latest polls. Seeking to win voters away from Rubio, Christie has mocked the Floridian as short on accomplishments and afraid to defend his most notable legislative action, his cosponsorship of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Christie touts himself as a blunt, battle-tested executive who managed Hurricane Sandy as governor and the aftermath of September 11 attacks as a U.S. Attorney in New Jersey.
“When you’re president of the United States, when you’re a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” he told Rubio on the debate stage. “They expect you to plow the snow. They expect you to get the schools open. And when the worst natural disaster in your state’s history hits you, they expect you to rebuild their state.”
Rubio responded briefly before pivoting to familiar ground: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true,” he said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing…”
“There it is,” Christie interrupted, drawing laughs. “The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
Rubio totaled six repetitions of at least parts of the talking point. And he was mocked on social media for it. Even the debate audience eventually booed him.
Christie managed to go on the attack while receiving limited criticism from other candidates. A similar dynamic buoyed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Kasich, who has put all his chips on a strong New Hampshire showing, made and received few attacks. Instead, he touted himself as an upbeat pragmatist. Bush, offering a similar problem-solver pitch, finally landed a blow on Trump, who has delighted in mocking the ex-governor.
After Trump defended the use of eminent domain to seize property, Bush noted Trump once tried to use the power to try to displace an aging woman who lived near the Atlantic City boardwalk. Turning land “into a limousine parking lot for one of his casinos is not a public use,” Bush said.
Trump responded with a non sequitur: “He wants to be a tough guy,” he said of Bush.
“How tough is it to take property from an elderly woman?” Bush retorted.
Trump’s stance drew boos from the crowd, prompting the developer to argue with the audience. The thin-skinned response may not have been wise, but his strong lead in the polls means he can still cruise to a win in New Hampshire despite a subpar debate performance.
Cruz also had a so-so night. The senator argued on the campaign trail this week that Trump would make a dangerous president, even going so far as to say he might “nuke Denmark” if elected. Pressed Saturday to repeat the claim, Cruz passed. Trump pounced on him anyway.
Cruz also claimed that his campaign’s false assertion during the Iowa caucuses that neurosurgeon Ben Carson was suspending his campaign, a clear bid to win Carson backers, was based on an incorrect CNN report.
Cruz’s assertion drew a pointed news release from CNN, issued mid-debate. “What Senator Cruz said tonight in the debate is categorically false,” the network said in a statement. “The fact that Senator Cruz continues to knowingly mislead the voters about this is astonishing.”
Republicans hope New Hampshire’s primary will winnow down a field of nine remaining candidates and help the party rally behind a favorite. That may very well happen. But Saturday’s debate, where struggling candidates thrived and frontrunners struggled, is more likely to prolong the messy fight for the GOP nomination.