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.