The New Hampshire Republican Debate: The Empire Strikes Back

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Was there yet another presidential debate tonight? You bet there was. This time was the Republicans’ turn, with the New Hampshire primary just three days away. The crew liveblogged proceedings as usual, and you can read it all here. My takeaway from the debate was that the empire—well, the moderate Republican establishment—struck back, with the three lagging, pragmatic, somewhat moderate governors in the race delivering strong performances, while frontrunners Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all had a difficult evening.

When is it bad to be a frontrunner? During a presidential debate three days before the New Hampshire primary, evidently. At Saturday night’s forum in Manchester, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all hit rough patches, while three often-overshadowed governors—Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich—delivered some of their strongest moments of the campaign so far.

Rubio, surging nationwide and in New Hampshire, believed he had a target pinned to his back coming in, and he was right. Christie was the hatchet man, coming after Rubio in the earliest moments of the debate and never letting up. (At one point, Christie even pivoted from responding to an attack by John Kasich to slam Rubio.) Christie jabbed that Rubio, as a senator, doesn’t have the executive experience needed to be president, citing Barack Obama as a cautionary tale. Rubio was ready with an answer to that: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing?” he said. “He knows exactly what he's doing.” Rubio isn’t the only candidate to suggest that Obama is more evil genius than bumbling fool—Ted Cruz has done the same—but the crowd wasn’t buying it. Maybe Rubio’s phrasing was just too clever.

But when Christie mocked the idea, Rubio started repeating it—paving the way for Christie’s right hook, an accusation that Rubio just repeats talking points: “There it is, the memorized 25-second speech.”

You can read the rest here.