A flustered Marco Rubio Sunday struggled to recover from his debate debacle, as supporters cringed and rivals branded his carefully-crafted, lofty campaign rhetoric as robotic, memorized talking points.
The senator from Florida is enduring a barrage of punches at a bad time, less than 48 hours before the first polls open in the New Hampshire primary. Rubio finished a close third in Iowa, has been surging in New Hampshire and is widely seen as having a solid shot at the Republican nomination.
That momentum slowed Saturday and Sunday, as twitter talk was dominated by criticism of Rubio’s halting debate performance. Hopes of what’s been called a 3-2-1 strategy – finishing third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and then first in South Carolina – may now be in jeopardy.
“I felt sorry for him,” said Michele Brassard, a tutor from New Ipswich, New Hampshire, as she waited for Rubio at a Bedford rally Sunday. “I cringed,” said Jill Polito, a lab assistant from the town of Lebanon. They’re hardly giving up on Rubio, but many in the audience of about 1,000 had concerns.
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Michelle Casale, a Bedford fundraiser for homeless shelters, is still making up her mind. The debate performance “does lower him a bit,” she said. “It really hurt him. He’s got to be able to think on his feet,” said Melissa LaPlume of Manchester, who’s also undecided.
Rubio didn’t address the debate the night before. He stayed visionary, with an occasional joke. A diehard Miami Dolphins fan, Rubio wondered why New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady doesn’t quit. “There should be a mandatory retirement age,” Rubio joked.
He stuck to his policy points throughout his talk and Q and A session, avoiding addressing directly his rivals’ taunts.
But the debate capped a week of rising criticism of his scant national experience, his abandoning of an immigration overhaul plan and his tendency to get visionary rather than specific when challenged.
He’s often compared to 2008-vintage Barack Obama, also in his first term in the Senate when he ran for the White House. Both were still new to the Senate, both noted as skilled orators, and both had come up from state legislatures but had few, if any, legislative accomplishments at the national level.
When former Sen. Rick Santorum endorsed Rubio last week after ending his own presidential bid, Santorum couldn't come up with a single Rubio accomplishment in the Senate.
That teed up the debate, and the barrage from rivals led by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida that left Rubio damaged.
Rather than deny any similarity to Obama, Rubio tried to argue that Obama is a very skilled and smart leader, but that he is using those skills for wrongheaded liberal goals while he, Rubio, would take the country in a better direction.
“He may have the skills to be a president of the United States, but we’ve tried it the old way with Barack Obama, with soaring eloquence,” said Bush of Rubio. “We didn’t get a leader. We got someone who wants to divide the country up.”
And each time Christie hit Rubio for retreating to a talking point about Obama being smart but bad, Rubio seemed to respond by doing the same thing.
“Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country,” Rubio said. He repeated a variation of that thought over and over.
Trump challenged that notion. “I think he has no idea what he’s doing. And our country is going to hell,” Trump said of Obama.
“The memorized 25-second speech, that is exactly what his advisers gave him,” Christie scoffed.
Rubio has climbed to 2d place, behind Trump, in the RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire Republican primary polls taken last week
“Every morning when a United States senator wakes up, they think about what kind of speech can I give or what kind of bill can I drop?” Christie said. “Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me?”
Rubio’s calculation is that the more he focuses on Obama, the more he’ll sound above all the primary brawling and instead appear as the leader of a new generation thinking hard about how to challenge and change the nation. He’ll then look presidential, a leader.
Rubio’s take on the critics who deride his resume: If years in office were the chief criteria to be president, “We should all rally around Joe Biden. He’s been around 1,000 years,” No Republican, he said, is eager for that.
Trouble is, Christie, Trump and Bush will keep piling on, and remind voters that as a senator, Rubio doesn’t run anything.
“It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points,” Christie said.