It was the biggest stage Senator Marco Rubio had ever been on and he froze like a side of beef in a Kansas City meat locker.
Following his surprising third place finish in Iowa and five days of ever-rising poll numbers in the Granite State, Rubio had an opportunity to soar. Instead, he crashed and burned, leaving both his supporters and opponents wondering if he could recover.
One possible beneficiary of Rubio’s self-inflicted wounds will be Ohio Governor John Kasich, who very well might surge past Rubio to take second place on Tuesday. Kasich’s poll numbers had been gradually rising the last six weeks to where his support is now in the low teens. His non-controversial debate performance didn’t hurt his chances for second place.
But it was the face-off between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Rubio that exposed the many flaws of the Florida senator.
Rubio awkwardly pivoted four times to a well-rehearsed line that President Barack Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing” as he tried to drill home the idea that he’s the inevitable general election candidate – an unforced error that his rivals pounced on and that quickly went viral.
“There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody,” Chris Christie charged.
It was a defining moment as Rubio’s opponents successfully turned two of his greatest strengths — his eloquence and message discipline — against him in the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, casting the Florida senator as a lightweight leader who has been lifted by little more than lofty and canned rhetoric.
Christie led the charge on stage, and rival campaigns joined in, gleefully tweeted out a new “Marco Rubio Glitch” Twitter account that captured the robotic repeats and gained more than 1,000 followers quickly after the debate wrapped up.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was representing Jeb Bush in the spin room, told reporters that Rubio only reinforced the doubts about his readiness for the White House. “He’s really good at talking points and sound bites but he was off his game tonight,” he said. “I think the case for Marco being ready to be commander in chief took a hit tonight.”
Christie also had the most devasating attack of the night.
Christie urged Republicans not to make the “same mistake we made eight years ago” in electing a first-term senator, Barack Obama. Bush eagerly piled on. “We’ve tried it the old way,” Bush said, echoing Christie’s warning of a repeat Obama act.
When Rubio listed some of his Senate accomplishments, Christie hammered him on that, too, in particular Rubio’s backing of a bill cracking down on Hezbollah, and his spotty attendance record for Senate votes. “That’s not leadership,” Christie said. “That’s truancy.”
Rubio tried to hit back at Christie over attendance, only to have it boomerang. The Florida senator pointed that Christie only reluctantly went back to New Jersey for 36 hours during a big snow storm. “That had to shame you into going back,” Rubio said.
Christie shot back — “The shame is, Marco, you would actually criticizes someone for showing up to work.”
Hinting that Rubio is the GOP Obama resonates with a lot of Republicans who worry about the senator’s inexperience and questionable positions on some key issues. But will all of this damage translate into lost votes?
Rubio will have a hard time hanging on to 2nd place in New Hampshire, but even if he finishes 3rd, he has a ticket out of the state, unlike his tormentor Christie and most of the rest of the GOP field. Assuming that Kasich does well enough to fight another day, it will be a four-man race going into the South Carolina primary later this month.