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Eye On Candidates
February 8, 2016

Rubio Stumbles Weekend Before N.H. Primaries

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign team described several months ago their strategy for the Republican nomination, dubbed “3:2:1” by most: a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, a second place finish in New Hampshire, and a first place victory in either South Carolina or Nevada. Heading into the GOP debate on Saturday evening he looked like he was on the way to achieving the second part of his plan.

As Politico’s panel of experts observed, things quickly turned sour for Rubio once the debate started:

Insiders: Marco Rubio crashed and burned

Marco Rubio was stuck on repeat Saturday night, and it threatens his momentum in the New Hampshire primary.

The POLITICO Caucus – a panel of operatives, strategists and activists in the early-nominating states – overwhelmingly judged Rubio the loser of the final debate before the first-in-the-nation primary.

More than two-thirds of GOP insiders surveyed after the ABC News debate said Rubio lost, and more than 70 percent said the Florida senator’s performance will hurt his chances of toppling front-runner Donald Trump or even outpacing his fellow competitors for second place on Tuesday.

Rubio’s mistake was repeating several times a well-worn and likely effective (in most circumstances) line regarding President Obama after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused him of being overly reliant on canned responses. Over at Bloomberg Politics Rubio received a grade of “D” for his performance from Mark Halperin, which may be the lowest he’s given a presidential candidate this cycle:

Played right into Christie's hands by giving the same canned answer again and again after being hit by his rival for inexperience—and for canned answers. Compounded his problems by defending President Obama's skill all night and visibly perspiring. On defense on immigration too, also in part thanks to Christie's needling. Mostly fine on foreign policy, but no moments good enough to erase the new- and old-media fascination with his disastrous face-offs with the Jersey brawler. Picked the wrong night to play into his opponents' hands and will now be subjected to intense, negative scrutiny of his rhetoric for a long, long time. 

And the Politico Caucus observers were merciless as well:

New Hampshire GOP insiders called Rubio “cringeworthy,” “badly programmed and robotic,” “so rehearsed he comes off as inauthentic,” and “exposed at last for the wind-up doll he is.”

“He botched the exchange with Christie, sounded like a broken record, and was sweating so much that he looked like he needed Charlie Crist's fan blowing on him,” added another New Hampshire Republican, who, like all respondents, completed the survey anonymously.

“Every answer in previous debates involved Orwellian oration about ‘Islamic jihadists,’” added a South Carolina Republican. “Tonight it was ‘Barack Obama,’ but Christie didn't let him get away with skirting the substantive answers – Rubio reinforced the negative by repeating his memorized diversion to Obama two or three more times.”

Harsh assessments, and it’s probably worth recalling that several of the experts on Politico’s panel are affiliated with other campaigns (specific responses are anonymous, but the identity of each member of the panel is public), but the fact is Rubio didn’t do particularly well in this exchange by most accounts, and it could have some impact with voters. The Washington Post described some of the aftermath as follows:

Rubio received scathing reviews on the Sunday talk shows and was needled by some of his opponents. On Twitter, he earned the moniker “Rubio bot.” Clips of the debate played repeatedly on cable news and were watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.

The episode interrupted Rubio’s week-long effort to build on his impressive third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses and consolidate donors and party officials behind him. It also appeared to give new life to the struggling candidacies of Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while improving Donald Trump’s chances of winning the New Hampshire Republican primary.

The fallout for Rubio over the long term could be severe. His GOP rivals argued Sunday that the debate undercut the central case for Rubio’s candidacy — that his political agility and youthful, charismatic persona make him best positioned to challenge the Democratic nominee.

Politico in another article reported the results of an internal tracking poll by a super PAC backing Kasich showing a decline for Rubio following the debate:

An internal poll conducted on Sunday suggests that Marco Rubio’s fumbled debate performance has damaged his prospects heading into the New Hampshire primary.

The poll, conducted by the pro-John Kasich New Day for America Super PAC, shows Rubio plummeting to fourth place in the primary here, with 10 percent of the vote. Most of the polling conducted in the immediate days before the debate showed Rubio in second place….

Donald Trump holds a wide lead in the survey, receiving 35 percent. He more than doubles runner-up Kasich, who has 15 percent. In third is Jeb Bush, with 13 percent. Behind Rubio in fifth and sixth place, respectively, are Christie and Ted Cruz. Both receive 8 percent.  

The real problem for Rubio, if these poll results are reflected in the final results tomorrow evening, is that it may have opened the door for one of his rivals in the so-called “establishment” lane to pass him and turn what has been billed by many since Iowa as a three-man race between Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and businessman Donald Trump, into a four-person race or possibly even a five-or six-person race, depending on who finishes ahead of him.

Bloomberg Politics offered the following report on what Rubio’s debate stumble means to his rivals that struggled in Iowa:

Rubio's stumble, perhaps the worst of his campaign so far, came at a crucial time. Not only was he showing signs that he may be the candidate to finally coalesce the party’s establishment wing, but he had shown in Iowa that he was attractive to Republicans deciding in the final week before the caucuses.

According to a new Monmouth University Poll released Sunday, barely half of the likely Republican voters—49 percent—say they've made up their minds ahead of Tuesday's voting. The rest remained open to switching candidates or said they have yet to decide…. 

In the poll, Kasich is at 14 percent, Rubio and Bush are at 13 percent and Iowa caucuses winner Ted Cruz is at 12 percent, the poll found. The rest of the field is at or below 6 percent. The bulk of the poll was taken before Saturday night's debate.

Bush and Kasich seem well positioned to gain from Rubio’s loss, and Christie is also a contender – while his support has dipped in recent weeks, he was part of a gaggle of candidates in contention for second place as recently as a month ago, and given his role in pushing Rubio on canned responses, he could be the beneficiary.

In general, Rubio is a gifted speaker and politician. His profile at The Leadership Project for America includes the following:

Rubio is widely regarded as an effective communicator, one of the reasons he was selected to introduce Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention and to give the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2013. His introduction of Romney was termed “captivating” by The Washington Post, and his State of the Union speech was generally well regarded although he was criticized for taking a drink of water halfway through.

He also possesses considerable political skills, as his come-from-behind win in the 2010 nomination fight with Crist demonstrated. He performed well in debates, and showed a good grasp of the facts regarding policies and issues.

So it is unlikely that this one gaffe reveals any serious defect or flaw in Rubio as a candidate. But it was a gaffe, and it possibly has opened the way for one or more of the other contenders who finished below him in Iowa to pass him in New Hampshire and, in a best-case scenario for Rubio, delay the day when he consolidates “establishment” voters behind his candidacy.

The worst case for Rubio, of course, is that a candidate passes him and beats him again in South Carolina, and establishment voters instead rally behind the candidate with newfound momentum.