Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Saturday night took the fiercest attacks yet in the Republican race following his strong third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was hammered as callow, ambitious and lacking in accomplishment during the Republican presidential debate here Saturday night, as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey led an all-out assault to try to halt Rubio’s growing momentum ahead of the critical New Hampshire primary Tuesday.
Rubio, facing the fiercest attacks yet of the Republican race after his strong third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, looked rattled at times and faltered as he pushed back with scripted lines about President Obama that Christie mocked mercilessly.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Donald Trump also pounced on Rubio, whose rising popularity in New Hampshire poses a grave threat to their candidacies. But it was Christie who was the most pointed and personal in his derision of Rubio — a strategy that may not bring him votes but could wound Rubio just as he had been ascending.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable — you just simply haven’t,” Christie told Rubio early in the debate.
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Charging Rubio with taking credit for policies but then skipping Senate votes on them, he said, “That’s not leadership. That’s truancy.”
With several candidates facing possible elimination Tuesday, the debate offered a final opportunity here for them to reach a large number of voters and to try to reshape the race.
The intensity of the debate reflected the stakes. Christie, who had just $1 million left for his campaign at the start of the year, is almost certain to exit the race if he does not outperform his establishment-aligned rivals Tuesday. Bush and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio are facing nearly as much pressure to demonstrate they can appeal to voters after being overshadowed by more conservative candidates. And Trump, after sustaining a surprise loss in Iowa in part because of his lackluster organization, needs to prove he can turn out his supporters and win in a state he has dominated for months.
Christie was pugnacious from his first statement, while Bush mixed ridicule — mostly aimed at Rubio — with sobering lectures, fighting about his ideas on missile defense and eminent domain. Kasich struck a more positive tone, saying his record of job growth in Ohio was a template for the nation, while Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon far behind in the polls, presented himself as a political outsider who would bring fresh perspective and independent judgment to government.
Rubio seemed most unsettled when, during the early exchange with Christie, he attempted to pivot to attacking Obama for “trying to change this country” and leading the nation to “disaster.” Christie pounced, suggesting that Rubio was simply reciting rehearsed sound bites.
Taking a lecturing tone with Rubio, Christie said, “See Marco — Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech when you talk about how great America is at the end of it — it doesn’t solve one problem for one person.”
When Rubio responded with a line he had used earlier, Christie shot back with seeming exasperation: “There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
Bush appeared almost itchy to pile onto Rubio, at one point saying to Christie, “Chris, why don’t you mention my name so I can get into this.”
Moments later, Bush said, “Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician, and he may have the skills to be president,” but then compared Rubio to Obama, who was also a first-term senator when he ran for president.
“We tried it the old way with Barack Obama, soaring eloquence, and we didn’t get a leader.”
The alliance of the three governors, frustrated that Rubio has captured the imagination of donors, voters and the media, was striking during the lengthy debate, which was sponsored by ABC News and Independent Journal Review. Not only did they team up on Rubio, they avoided harsh attacks on one another.
Christie praised Kasich’s governorship, and Bush held both of them up in praising the principles of federalism.
“I trust Christie and Kasich” more than Washington, Bush said, arguing for returning dollars to the states.
Trump, who skipped the last debate in Iowa and may have paid a price with voters there, struggled to re-establish himself as a force to be reckoned with Saturday. He drew only scattered applause — and even some mocking laughter — when he promised to “replace Obamacare with something so much better,” a vague remark that Trump has used for months without explaining his vision for health care. Trump also jabbed at Rubio, although he was less memorable than Christie. Referring to Rubio’s claim that Obama’s fault was not his youth but that he knew what he was doing and was wrongheaded, Trump said he disagreed.
“I think we have a president who is totally incompetent and doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said Trump, adding that partly because of Obama “our country is going to hell.”
After several debates in which Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were the most belligerent and aggressive candidates, they appeared to be protecting their poll leads and political advantages as they prepare for a protracted fight for the nomination. They seemed content to cede the spotlight to their rivals on stage, hoping they would do damage to each other — and, especially, to Rubio.
At one point, however, during an exchange with Bush, Trump took aim at the audience.
“He wants to be a tough guy, and it doesn’t work very well,” Trump said of Bush. As Bush sought to interrupt him, Trump told him dismissively, “quiet,” setting off booing in the audience. Trump denounced those booing as “all of his donors and special interests,” drawing more jeers. “We have all donors in the audience,” he said. “The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money.”
Cruz ducked when asked if he stood by his earlier criticism of Trump’s temperament and his assertion that Trump might use nuclear weapons, even against a friendly country like Denmark. Instead Cruz simply said that voters would assess who was “levelheaded” and had “judgment.”
Carson, who has largely faded as a candidate, deftly cut down Cruz for his campaign’s incorrect assertion that Carson had dropped out right before the Iowa caucuses. “I was very disappointed that members of his team thought so little of me that they thought that after having hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers and college students who sacrificed their time and were dedicated to the cause — one even died — to think that I would just walk away 10 minutes before the caucus,” Carson said. “I mean, who would do something like that? What does that tell you?”
Cruz, who was concerned about Carson’s making inroads with evangelicals in Iowa, apologized and recalled that he had done so the day after the caucuses. But he also faulted CNN for reporting that Carson was “taking a break” from the campaign. (It turned out that Carson was only returning home to Florida for a change of clothes.)
Bush, Kasich and Christie do not expect to win New Hampshire, advisers say, but each is gunning to beat Rubio for second place or come in a strong third to justify continuing in the race as it moves to South Carolina, which holds its primary Feb. 20. Rubio and Cruz, on the other hand, believe they have the political appeal and campaign cash to move on to South Carolina even if they do not win or place in New Hampshire on Tuesday.