Anyone looking at the polls or the dynamics of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary going into tonight’s Republican candidate debate knew the candidate with the bull’s-eye on his back was Marco Rubio, and that the rivals hunting for him would be the three facing imminent extinction: Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. Rubio had finished a surprisingly strong third in Iowa while the other three had finished a very poor sixth, seventh, and eighth. Long the “smart money” favorite for the nomination, he was being hailed by Republican establishment figures as the one guy who might save them from both Trump and Cruz. He had a reputation as an excellent, if somewhat robotic, debater. And he was already climbing into second place in most of the post-Iowa polls in New Hampshire.
All Rubio probably had to do to move out of New Hampshire as the establishment darling who still appealed to conservative evangelicals and movement conservatives was to do as well in this debate as he generally has.
So what happened? The three best debaters by most accounts were … Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. And Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.
Rubio’s big mistake was a strange obsession with insisting over and over again that other candidates’ references to Obama’s incompetence were dead wrong, and that the 44th president knew exactly what terrible and destructive things his administration was doing. Now as it happens, this is an important distinction among certain very hard-core conspiracy-oriented conservatives. Ben Carson, in fact, articulated it in the first Republican debate, referring to Hillary Clinton as deliberately trying to deceive Americans and destroy the country as her mentor Saul Alinsky (one of the great devil-figures of the Bircher right) counseled. The phrase Rubio kept using, that Obama was determined to “fundamentally change” the country to turn it into some European-style secular socialist nightmare, is another wingnut favorite that the Floridian has been deploying for a while, suggesting that the incumbent isn’t a decent man who’s not up to the job but a conscious American-hater.
Why did Rubio walk himself into this trap? That’s hard to say. Perhaps his polling or focus groups suggested to him that with so clogged an “establishment lane” in New Hampshire, there was some running room to the right. (For all the talk about the state being a moderate hotbed, it is also the place where in 1980 Ronald Reagan executed a comeback after losing to Poppy Bush in Iowa in part by railing against the Trilateral Commission and other Bircher boogeymen). Or maybe recognizing his risk in this debate, he and his wizards decided sticking to his talking points come Hell or high water was the safest approach.
Either way, it didn’t work, and when you added in the pounding he took for his universally acknowledged Achilles’ heel, his immigration flip-flop, it was by far his worst debate performance, at the worst possible time, and against exactly the wrong competition. He recovered during the second half of the event, but you could still smell the cordite in the air.
Christie was the winner of the debate on points, though again, he has the most ground to make up. Kasich is closest to the top in most recent New Hampshire polling, and so may have put himself in a position to catch Rubio. Jeb! did well, too, though Trump’s joke about the audience being heavily composed of Bush’s famously numerous donors rang pretty true.
Speaking of The Donald, he did well in no small part by failing to be the center of attention. I don’t know enough about New Hampshire Republicans to know whether his robust defense of eminent domain was a disaster there; if not, he may have just gone a long way toward wrapping up a victory.
The other winner was probably Ted Cruz, not because he did that well — in fact, he had some very uncomfortable moments right off the bat at Ben Carson’s hands over the whole “Iowa dirty tricks” issue (which Trump cleverly alluded to in his closing remarks). But anything that keeps Rubio off-balance and more Rubio rivals in the race is very good for the Texan. He’d love to see them all in South Carolina.