'Marcobot' Meltdown: Marco Rubio's Broken Record Blunder Costs Him Big-Time at New Hampshire Debate
Marco Rubio found himself stuck on repeat while fending off debate attacks from his Republican rivals on Saturday night, stumbling in his effort to claim the mantle of establishment presidential alternative ahead of New Hampshire’s crucial primary.
The Florida senator, who gained momentum with a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and a wave of endorsements, has focused on a second-place finish in this less stridently conservative state in hopes of muscling rivals like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich out of the race.
Instead, in a fiery final debate before Tuesday’s crucial vote, Rubio had one of the worst nights of his entire campaign – and may have inadvertently offered a more mellow Donald Trump a clearer path toward victory in New Hampshire and perhaps even crowded the field all over again.
During a prolonged exchange that quickly went viral on social media, he repeated himself three different times as he struggled to defend himself against Christie, the New Jersey governor who brought out the knives over Rubio’s relative inexperience. The second-term senator quickly pivoted to vice-president Joe Biden, who, Rubio said, “has been around for 1,000 years” and would not be fit to be commander-in-chief himself.
Rubio then made the case that Barack Obama, to whom he is often compared by his opponents, was not as unsuccessful as critics suggested in terms of pursuing his own agenda.
Christie, who in seeking his own opening in New Hampshire has condemned Rubio as “scripted”, interjected“Marco, you shouldn’t compare yourself to Joe Biden,” he said, before pointing out Rubio named as an achievement passing sanctions against Hezbollah despite skipping the vote on the actual legislation.
Rubio sought to fight back by going after Christie’s record in New Jersey, a state that has undergone several credit downgrades. But the Florida senator quickly pivoted to his talking points, going on to repeat the same answer three times in a row in a brutal back-and-forth. About half an hour later, he repeated the same talking points yet again.
“There it is, there it is,” Christie said. “The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
Even Rubio’s camp acknowledged the repetitive moment was a difficult one on a night when his rivals sought “to utterly destroy Marco Rubio, knock him out and leave him dead on the floor”, according to Rubio aide Todd Harris. “We had a tough exchange with Governor Christie,” he told the Guardian after the debate, “but Marco continued to get stronger and stronger throughout the night.”
Mike DuHaime, a top Christie strategist, was more blunt: “If you’re not ready for a human exchange with another person on stage,” he told the Guardian, “you’re not ready to be president.”
Bush, the former Florida governor who has avoided explicit attacks on Rubio, chimed in to curse his erstwhile protÃ©gÃ© with faint praise.
“Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician, and he may have the skills to be president of the United States,” Bush said. “But we tried it with Barack Obama.”
The Rubio barrage came relatively early in the debate, which sprawled nearly three hours with blustery exchanges on torture, immigration and abortion, but not before a bumbling start to the debate that included Ben Carsonmissing his cue to walk on the stage after being announced by the ABC moderator. The retired neurosurgeon was left standing awkwardly backstage, but Kasich, the Ohio governor, was not even introduced.
Ted Cruz, who won in Iowa but is trailing Trump in New Hampshire, took more heated criticism from Carson overthe accusation that the Texas senator’s campaign had spread a false rumor that Carson was dropping out of the race. Cruz then promptly reiterated his apology but tried to blame CNN, which had reported that Carson would be going to home to Florida for a day or two on Iowa caucus night.
Trump, who has been the center of the storm for the Republicans’ previous seven debates before what pundits were calling a historically “self-destructive”, did not take too many direct assaults onstage. But he did react shakily to a question about eminent domain, the power of the government to seize property for “public use”.
While its use is not controversial for government projects like roads or bridges, eminent domain is a hot-button issue here in New Hampshire for economic development projects led by private-property owners. The mogul has been accused of trying to have an elderly woman’s house in Atlantic City seized for a limousine parking lot for one of his casinos.
Bush used the opportunity to draw blood, insisting to Trump that “a limousine parking lot for his casinos is not a public use”. Trump once again mocked Bush as “a tough guy”, holding a single finger to his lips, setting off a cascade of boos from the audience, which Trump welcomed.
Instead of rebutting Bush on the facts, Trump used the opportunity to play the villain to the crowd as if he was a heel in professional wrestling. “All of his donors and special interests, you know has tickets,” the real estate mogul said. “The reason they are not loving me is because I don’t want their money”. The audience of 1,000 at St Anselm College, which the Republican National Committee said consisted of 75 donors, kept booing.
Moments before the debate began, North Korea launched a long-range rocket, offering Rubio a moment to seize on foreign policy.
Trump pivoted to trade: “We have – tremendous – has been just sucked out of our country by China. China says they don’t have that good of control over North Korea. They have tremendous control. I deal with the Chinese all of the time. I do tremendous – the largest bank in the world is in one of my buildings in Manhattan.”
The back-and-forth left Cruz in an awkward position in a series of pointed questions about whether waterboarding constituted torture or whether the seven candidates onstage woudl re-institute it: “I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use,” he said.
The debate marked Bush’s strongest showing to date, after tepid performances last year that dogged his flailing presidential campaign. His growing confidence comes at a time when the former governor is looking to New Hampshire to salvage his bid to become the third in his family to serve in the White House.
Immigration reform was also litigated again in a state with a long history of supporting candidates like Pat Buchanan who have been staunchly opposed to immigration reform. In particular, Rubio was targeted for his role authoring comprehensive immigration reform bill. In 2013 that he later disavowed after conservatives revolted over its inclusion of a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.
Asked by debate moderators if he “cut and run” from his own bill, Rubio said the legislation “has no chance of passing” and laid out how he would address immigration reform as president.
Christie again stepped in to note that Rubio had not answered the essence of the question – over whether he had shown effective leadership on the issue of immigration.
“It is not leadership to continue to try something that has no chance of happening,” Rubio said.
Kasich sounded a comparatively dovish note as well on the issue. “Americans would support a plan like this,” he said. “I think Congress would pass a plan to finish the border, guest worker, pay a fine, a path to legalization, and not citizenship.”
Trump was relatively quiet on what has become his trademark subject, telling voters he would “build a real wall and not a toy wall” with Mexico.
Ironically, in New Hampshire, a state known for its socially moderate electorate, the candidates had the most extended discussions about reproductive rights in the campaign so far. Rubio doubled down on his social conservative credentials, reiterating his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest. “I would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life,” the Florida senator proudly proclaimed.
After his poor performance, however, concerns about Rubio’s viability in a general election have become far more academic than they were heading into the weekend. With strong showing from both Bush and Christie, Rubio’s grasp on second-place in the Granite State appeared far shakier and a non-Trump, non-Cruz path to the nomination immediately become far more arduous.
While that social conservative message may help him in the nominating fight, concerns about Rubio’s viability in a general election may be more academic than they were heading into the weekend. With strong showings from both Bush and Christie, Rubio’s grasp on second place in the Granite State appeared less clear after a night that could alter the momentum he so meticulously gained less than a week before.