Marco Rubio’s stumbles in Saturday night’s GOP debate, and the resulting pile-on by his Republican presidential rivals, could mean long-term troubles for his campaign just as the primary season heats up.
Rubio, who made his candidacy on a series of strong debate performances that eventually vaulted him into third place in last week’s Iowa caucuses, appeared rattled several times in the last debate before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary as he came under fire from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and others.
Christie, cognizant that he needs to finish in the top three to keep his White House hopes alive, began the debate by charging that Rubio, 44, was not prepared for the presidency.
The Florida lawmaker chided New Jersey’s economic performance before delivering a clearly rehearsed attack on President Obama.
“Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Rubio said.
Sensing an opening, Christie pounced. “That’s what Washington, D.C. 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,” he said.
When Rubio repeated the canned line moments later, prompting boos from the audience, Christie lunged again.
"There it is. The memorized, 25-second speech,” he said.
The fallout carried into Sunday morning as newspapers blared headlines that Rubio, who recent polls show surging into second place behind billionaire Donald Trump, choked.
Rubio is “so scripted, he's so gifted. He's a great speaker, but he came across as totally scripted and kind of robotic," former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
Correct the Record, an organization run by Hillary Clinton ally David Brock, released a brutal clip showing the “Rubio-Bot” malfunctioning.
Rubio furiously tried to spin notion that he was not off his game by arguing that he was addressing a general GOP audience.
“I would pay them to keep running that clip because that's what I believe passionately. It's one of the reasons why I'm not running for reelection to the Senate and I'm running for president," he said on ABC's This Week. "Obamacare was not an accident. Dodd-Frank was not an accident. The deal with Iran was not an accident.”
With less than 72 hours before voters go to the polls, it’s unclear how Rubio’s poor performance will affect him in New Hampshire, where Christie, Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich are all clawing to stay alive. It’s doubtful it will have as large an effect as when Trump decided to skip the last debate before the caucuses.
However, Saturday’s debate exposed Rubio as a candidate who may be too on message for his own good. If his rivals can portray him as someone who can’t think on his feet, and relies on canned lines to combat rhetorical barbs, it would add to the perception that Rubio’s unprepared to serve in the Oval Office.
Rubio’s dare to keep replaying the video of him stuck on repeat may come back to haunt him. There are no debates scheduled between Tuesday’s primary and the GOP primary in South Carolina on Feb. 20.
Observers believe that Rubio must win that primary, and not find the silver lining in third and second places finishes, in order to cement the belief that he is the “establishment” candidate to take on Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Indeed, Cruz and Trump stand to gain the most in the short-term from Rubio’s poor showing, which has largely overshadowed their performances.
On Sunday, Christie, who last week called Rubio the “boy in the bubble,” sensed he had reshuffled the race.
“I think the whole race changed last night,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Because you know there was a march among some of the chattering class to anoint Senator Rubio. I think after last night, that’s over.”
“We need someone who is tested and ready to go against Hillary Clinton,” Christie added. “She is a skilled debater. She's an experienced Washington insider. And you better have somebody on there who can take her on. Senator Rubio proved last night he can't do that.
“So now let's go to the next phase and I'm ready to go.”