Did Marco Rubio Squander His Big Moment?

The charismatic senator’s candidacy was flying high—until he hit turbulence at Saturday’s debate. Will it stall his surge?

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Until Saturday’s debate, it was clear that this was Marco Rubio’s moment.

The moment he had waited for, planned for, anticipated for months, for years: It was happening. He had surged into a strong third-place finish in Iowa, outpacing the polls and nearly passing second-place Donald Trump. He’d ridden into New Hampshire on a full head of steam, drawing bigger and bigger crowds at every stop, ticking steadily up into second in most polls, behind the still-dominant Trump. The other candidates were training their fire on him, hoping to stop the golden boy in his tracks.

And then, in the debate, he faced the test he knew was imminent. They came right at him. First it was the moderator, David Muir of ABC News, leveling the accusation put forth by his rivals: that Rubio was merely a good talker with nothing to show for it, just like another eloquent, inexperienced young senator, Barack Obama.

Rubio was ready with a clever—perhaps too clever—line. “Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing,” he said. “He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.”

Chris Christie, the once-formidable governor of New Jersey, himself a last-chancer desperate to gain some ground, pounced: Rubio, he said, “simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States and make these decisions.”

Rubio responded by attacking Christie’s record in New Jersey. “But I would add this,” he said. “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country.”

It was a familiar, and effective, maneuver for Rubio: slashing at his opponent, then ending above the fray with a larger point. But Christie, calling the audience’s attention to the move, described it differently: “the drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”

Rubio countered that Christie was too busy campaigning to run his state, and added, “Here’s the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

“There it is!” Christie crowed. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”

Rubio, in response, did not try to change course, to find something new and spontaneous and improvisational to disprove the point. “I think this is an important point,” he repeated for the fourth time. “We have to understand what we’re going through here. We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing.”

The debate had barely begun, and Rubio had walked into a trap. Accused of being a mindless reciter of talking points, he mindlessly recited talking points, over and over and over again. It was a theme the press had repeatedly noted, as it grew bored watching him give the same speech, the same answers to questions, time and again; Rubio’s besotted advisers termed it “message discipline.” On the debate stage, his inability to do anything but repeat the same line threatened to confirm the very criticism leveled against him: that behind his pretty rhetoric, there was little else.

Now the question is how serious the damage will be for Rubio, who had seemed on the brink of rallying his party behind him as the one candidate who could, as he frequently put it, “unite this party and unite this country.” The voters of New Hampshire are late deciders; at Republican events in the last couple of days, I’ve met many who said they were keeping their options open, including many who said they were counting on the debate to help them make up their minds. Would the debate, already being spun as a disaster for Rubio by his opponents, seem as awful to them as it did to the pundits? (Rubio’s team, for its part, professed to be unconcerned, with advisers telling reporters after the debate that all they saw was a practiced candidate capably attacking an unpopular president, to inevitable cheers from voters. But the advisers looked nervous.)

At a Rubio town hall on Thursday in Salem, I spoke to several voters who were gravitating toward him because they thought he could win. But his youth and inexperience represented a significant sticking point for some, as well as the impression that he was a little too slick. “He is very broad and sweeping in everything he says—there are not a lot of details,” a 70-year-old retired accountant and teacher named Karen Manzo said. “Then again, they all do that, don’t they? Try to be all things to all people.” Debbie Vance, a 52-year-old office manager from Litchfield, found Rubio charismatic, but “you could have sat home and watched his TV commercials,” she said. “He recited all the same things.”

If the debate does pop Rubio’s bubble, it will be a blow to the professional Republicans of Washington, D.C., for whom he seemed to represent the party’s last hope. They have spent the primary season on tenterhooks, alternately horrified and confused by the dominance of Trump, whom they consider a clown, and Cruz, whom they consider loathsome. That Rubio was making some headway in the inscrutable hearts of the regular Republican voters of Real America had given them a glimmer of hope that perhaps the party could recover from the past several months’ insanity.

“Everyone I know is for him,” one GOP Senate aide told me bluntly before the debate. “Rubio is the undisputed favorite among D.C. Republicans who aren’t seduced by Cruz’s Elmer Gantry routine and has been for some time.” The reason, he said, is that after losing the last two presidential elections, “people want to win.”

Another Washington Republican, who has donated to Jeb Bush, added, “It’s hard to deny Rubio’s currently the favorite to consolidate the Rubio-Bush-Kasich-Christie-Fiorina lane. If so, his chances in a three-way race against Trump and Cruz are very strong.” He worried, however, that Rubio’s record of accomplishments looked thin. And during the debate, he emailed to say this: “Tonight is closer to what I expected when I got behind Jeb, and exactly what I was worried about when others rallied around Rubio.”

Rubio has racked up high-profile endorsements since his Iowa finish: South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who is extraordinarily popular with that state’s Republicans, who are the next to cast primary votes; Rick Santorum, who dropped out of the presidential race after finishing 11th in Iowa; and Bobby Jindal, who ended his own presidential campaign in November. His campaign has been riding high as its carefully laid plans seemed to pan out with eerie precision.

But the problem for Rubio remained the fact that there were still several other candidates in the race, and they were doing their best to derail him. Christie’s campaign was collaborating with that of Jeb Bush to take him down. Both had cut ads featuring Santorum, in a post-endorsement interview on MSNBC, struggling to name one thing Rubio had accomplished. Christie, on the stump, had taken to calling him “the boy in the bubble.”

With just two days to go until New Hampshire votes, Rubio may still be able to cast himself as his party’s best option—but only if he can avoid the impression that, faced with the crucial test of his ascendant candidacy, he fell short.