Marco Rubio had the wind at his back and, thus, his rivals at his throat heading into Saturday night’s debate in New Hampshire. The senator from Florida handled himself very well — after an early exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that was pretty brutal. Here’s a quick compilation that, I can report having seen it all in real time, doesn’t take Rubio out of context:
Now, you’d be hard-pressed to argue Rubio shouldn’t be the president, or even the GOP nominee, based only on that clip. The repetition itself doesn’t speak to any particular aspect of a candidate — even the one that started the entire series, Christie’s claim that America can’t afford to elevate another first-term senator a la Barack Obama — any more than voters had reason to believe Rick Perry would screw up the shuttering of federal agencies just because he couldn’t remember the name of the third one when asked on a debate stage. Then again, we don’t call him President Perry.
I’m not saying Rubio’s candidacy is now doomed to fail the way Perry’s was after his “oops” moment. I don’t even know if it will even affect him in Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire; a lot of the answer to that question will depend on whether voters kept watching very long after that exchange, when as I already said Rubio gathered himself and was very good on foreign policy and social issues. And anyone paying close attention to the entire debate, not to mention previous debates, will have grasped the irony that Christie’s attack on Rubio as just another senator who talks but accomplishes nothing is something he repeats over and over again himself. He’s as “scripted” in this attack — and by the way, have you heard he became a U.S. Attorney the day before 9/11? maybe once or twice or 50 times? — as he accuses Rubio of being.
But voters make decisions for a variety of reasons, and it’s easy to imagine some number of people in New Hampshire who’d been leaning toward Rubio taking, at the very least, a step back to re-evaluate their options. Here, the saving grace for Rubio may be that there was no obvious winner of the debate for these voters to gravitate toward.
Christie was OK, but the highlight of his debate was bringing Rubio down a peg; he didn’t really elevate himself unless you want an attack dog. Jeb Bush had probably his best debate of the campaign — and even won an exchange (about eminent domain) with Donald Trump! But I have to wonder if it’s too little, too late for undoubtedly the most disappointing 2016 candidate in either party up to this point. John Kasich has staked his entire campaign on New Hampshire, so maybe his solid debate, alongside Rubio’s subpar performance by his own standards, crystallizes some support there for him. We’ll have to see. But if I were going to guess, any lost voters for Rubio because of this debate will be scattered among the other candidates in such a way as not to change the pecking order. It could, however, interrupt at least temporarily the narrative that Rubio is the ascendant candidate.
And it just might be that the winner of the debate was Donald Trump. He got the best of Ted Cruz at the very start, when Cruz was asked about his statement this past week that Trump didn’t have the temperament to be president, and he dodged it. The moderator who asked the question, ABC’s David Muir, pointed out that he hadn’t answered the question and asked it again. Cruz dodged again. And then Trump, in his rebuttal time, pointed out the second dodge, too. Adding to Cruz’s troubles, Muir next asked Ben Carson about the controversy in Iowa over the Cruz campaign’s telling voters on the day of the caucus that CNN was reporting Carson was about to drop out of the race. Carson called it an example of “Washington ethics” — shades of the “New York values” for which Cruz criticized Trump not long ago. When Cruz responded with a timeline of what had happened, Carson jumped back in to point out that CNN had quickly clarified its report to say Carson wasn’t going to drop out, and the Cruz campaign ignored that. I doubt the rehashing of this point was what viewers were really looking for Saturday night, but coming right after Cruz’s bad exchange with Trump it couldn’t have helped the Texan. Like Rubio, though, Cruz was mostly better as the debate went on.
Trump, meanwhile, was pretty quintessentially himself — asked about torture, for example, he said: “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” We are waiting to see if he can get back to defying the rules of political gravity, or if Iowa was only the first sign that his prospects were overstated. If it’s the former, he just might have gained the most of anyone Saturday night.