It was awkward. In total, he said the same line four times. He didn’t look like an election winner, to put it mildly. As the debate went on, Rubio regained his footing. He finished strongly with a passionate defence of his opposition to abortion. But by then it was too late. He had had his shocker. He had shown once again what a deeply flawed candidate he is. He may look polished, but he is not accomplished. He isn’t comfortable thinking on his feet.
The exchange with Christie was most damaging for Rubio because it reinforced several criticisms of him at once. He often comes across as excessively scripted, and on Saturday he was so scripted that he seemed incapable of moving away from his rehearsed attack on Obama. He couldn’t drop the line even when repeating it confirmed what Christie was saying about him. The line itself was almost Palinesque in its phrasing (“let’s dispel with this fiction”), and showed a certain desperation that Rubio doesn’t usually display on stage. When Rubio is prepared for an attack, he can usually deflect it easily with a memorized retort as he did against Bush last year, but when he’s caught off guard as he was Saturday he doesn’t know what to do. He also tried to counter-attack and said that Christie had to be “shamed” into returning home during the recent snowstorm, which prompted a loud chorus of boos from the audience. He was hit hard, and then wasn’t able to hit back effectively. Rubio’s critics have long considered him overrated, and on Saturday the debate audience got to see a little of why we think so.
Rubio has been treated so favorably in the media for so long that he isn’t accustomed to being challenged as directly as Christie challenged him, and he doesn’t seem to handle scrutiny and criticism all that well. Furthermore, Rubio retreated to his talking points because he was being challenged on the thinness of his record in the Senate. He had to fall back on his anti-Obama lines because he doesn’t have a significant legislative record that he can cite in his defense. The senator is normally considered one of the best debaters in the field, but Christie showed how easily the senator can be flummoxed and thrown off his game. The “malleable man of maneuver” was completely outmaneuvered, and it wasn’t even that hard. To make matters worse for him, this is the sort of debate error that can be easily replayed and turned into ads by his rivals, and so many voters that weren’t watching the debate will keep seeing it over the coming days and weeks. The ad practically writes itself: “Do you want someone this unprepared and unsteady to face Clinton? Do you want someone like this as president?” The conceit that Rubio is the best candidate for the general election looks a lot less credible than it did before the debate, and there are now many more Republicans that must doubt that Rubio is the answer. Insofar as this performance dissuades supporters of Bush and Kasich from defecting to him, that significantly complicates his already poor campaign strategy.
I don’t know how much of an effect the debate will have on the primary itself. Several candidates are bunched up together between second and fifth place in New Hampshire, and late switches in support and late deciders could end up giving a stronger second-place finish to one of them or leave all of them tied around 13-14%. Rubio seemed to have pulled into second place ahead of the debate, and the general reaction to the debate suggests that the best he can hope for is to hang on to that position and not get passed by Kasich and/or Cruz. Kasich and Bush will probably gain ground in the next couple of days. Christie served his purpose as a wrecking ball, but I’m not sure that it is going to win him many supporters. If I had to guess, I would say that Kasich gets past Rubio at the finish line to take second place, but not by a lot, and Bush and Cruz will be following up closely behind Rubio. Bush and Kasich have even less incentive to drop out after Tuesday than they did last week, and Rubio’s shaky performance can only encourage them to stay in the race for a while. Instead of quickly winnowing the field down to three candidates, New Hampshire seems more likely to give at least two of the other “establishment” candidates new life and to create new doubts about Rubio’s viability.