Marco Rubio's rivals sought to bring his wave of "Marcomentum" crashing down during Saturday night's Republican debate by attacking his record and portraying him as weak and inexperienced.
His campaign coined the "Marcomentum" phrase after Rubio's strong third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses earlier in the week. His close finish behind Donald Trump, who ceded victory to Ted Cruz, bumped Rubio up in the polls and helped build a case for him to be the alternative to those two candidates.
The GOP establishment wants to block Trump and Cruz from becoming the nominee and it is desperate to solidify support around someone else in the field of candidates.Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, where the debate took place at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, is viewed as a key step in determining who will emerge as the alternative candidate.
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Rubio went into the debate under pressure to perform and as the expected target, and he emerged battered and bruised.
"Rubio did not pick a good night to have his worst debate of the year," Dante Scala, a political science associate professor at New Hampshire University, said in an interview. "That first hour wasn't good."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie led the assaults on Rubio, bluntly stating he doesn't have what it takes to be the commander-in-chief.
Christie takes aim at Rubio
"You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable — you just simply haven't," said Christie. In the debate and on the campaign trail this weekend Christie is emphasizing that being a governor means you have the skills and experience to move on to the White House. Sitting in the U.S. Senate, like Cruz and Rubio, doesn't cut it.
Christie also hammered Rubio over sticking to talking points and delivering memorized speeches. When Rubio tried to counter those attacks, he used the same lines to criticize Barack Obama's presidency over and over again.
Christie jumped at the chance to mock him for it. "There it is, the memorized 25-second speech, there it is everybody!"
"Christie had a very good night," said Scala, and it just might prompt some undecided voters to give him a closer look.
That's exactly what Christie, along with former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are counting on before Tuesday's vote. Trump is leading in the polls but this trio of governors is trying to knock Cruz and Rubio out of the way to close in on him.
When they tout their records as governors it resonates with voters like Doug Byer. "I think the governors have a step up on everybody else," he said after watching the debate in his Manchester hotel. He likes Rubio too though, he added.
A Christie event earlier in the day in Bedford, N.H., attracted an undecided voter who wanted to hear from him. Joe Hannaford said he likes that Christie doesn't seem phony, and he agrees with Christie's criticism of Rubio.
"I find Rubio appealing but I don't think he has the experience yet, it's not his time," he said.
The debate was an important opportunity for the candidates to make their final pitches to New Hampshire voters in prime time. The ABC News moderators asked questions on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, including terrorism, immigration, North Korea's nuclear program, health care, abortion and tax reform.
Trump takes little heat
They set up a potential confrontation between Cruz and Trump, who have been sniping at each other all week, but Cruz declined to take the bait and repeat comments he's made about Trump's temperament.
In past debates, Trump, as the frontrunner, has been the target, but last night he was largely ignored as Bush and Christie tried to take down Rubio instead.
"I'm surprised how little fire was directed at Donald Trump," said Chris Galdieri, an assistant professor of political science at Saint Anselm College, after the debate. "People pretty much left him alone."
Aside from a feisty exchange between Bush and Trump over their positions on eminent domain — during which the Keystone XL pipeline proposal was cited — there were few fireworks with Trump.
He has a lead to protect and was mindful of that last night. "He's toned things down," said Galdieri.
While Christie stood out last night and is being credited for knocking Rubio off his game, his approach won't necessarily translate into votes for him.
"Anybody can be a bully, anybody can be belligerent, but you're still running for the highest office in the land. You've got to conduct yourself that way both running for it and in the office," said Derrick Kitts, who was watching the debate at a Manchester bar with friends. "His attacks, although effective, they fall on deaf ears to me. It isn't making me like him any more."
Kasich counting on New Hampshire
Kitts is undecided and is leaning toward Kasich. The Ohio governor, unlike Christie and Bush, didn't go negative on Rubio in the debate. He has a lot at stake on Tuesday, he's counting on New Hampshire to keep him in the race as a real player and after the debate he pleaded with voters to support him. "I need you," he said.
Kasich didn't invest in Iowa as much as he has in New Hampshire. He's spent a lot of time campaigning in the state, playing the ground game to meet voters face-to-face.
Earlier in the day at a restaurant in Manchester, Kasich walked about shaking hands and taking pictures with customers. "Good luck tonight!" one woman came up to him to say. "He looks like Harrison Ford," another woman said. Kasich was relaxed, telling reporters he started his morning on the treadmill, watching the Golf Channel.
Scala, the political science professor, said Rubio may have done Kasich a favour last night.
"I don't think he did anything to solidify second place," he said referring to Rubio's performance. "He left an opening for someone else and that could be Kasich," he said.
New Hampshire voters are notorious for making up their minds at the last minute and Scala said anyone looking to the debate to help them decide may not have gotten much clarity.
Rubio aside, Kasich, Christie, Bush, Cruz, Trump and Ben Carson, whose profile in the race has been dropping, all had decent nights.
"I think this debate might only add to the general uncertainty in the New Hampshire Republican electorate right now," he said.