Marco Rubio Becomes The Main Target At Eighth Republican Debate

Marco Rubio was the man in the cross hairs in last night's Republican debate.

Eighth Republican Debate

Last night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, the first aired on a national broadcast network as opposed to cable and the first to take place on a weekend, was a three-hour affair that got off to a rocky start thanks a bizarre incident involving Ben Carson during the introduction of the candidates, but the real story began when the debate started and it soon became apparent that there was one man in the cross hairs of every other candidate on the stage, Florida Senator Marco Rubio:

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was hammered as callow, ambitious and lacking in accomplishment during the Republican presidential debate here on Saturday night, as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey led an all-out assault to try to halt Mr. Rubio’s growing momentum ahead of the critical New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.

Mr. 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 Mr. Christie mocked mercilessly. While the Republicans clashed on issues like abortion and torture, the concerted effort to take down Mr. Rubio dominated the debate.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Donald J. Trump also pounced on Mr. Rubio, whose rising popularity in New Hampshire poses a grave threat to their candidacies. But it was Mr. Christie who was the most pointed and personal in his derision of Mr. Rubio — a strategy that may not ultimately bring him votes, but could wound Mr. Rubio just as he has been ascending.

“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable — you just simply haven’t,” Mr. Christie told Mr. Rubio early in the debate. Charging Mr. Rubio with taking credit for policies but then skipping Senate votes on them, he said, “That’s not leadership. That’s truancy.”

The scorn aimed at Mr. Rubio, a 44-year-old first-term senator, came as voters in New Hampshire and nationwide are still taking the measure of him, though he is well positioned to surge nationally if he has a strong showing in the primary here. Still, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll last week indicated there was still fluidity in the New Hampshire electorate: 33 percent of Republican primary voters here said they might change their minds before Tuesday.

The intensity of the debate reflected the stakes, as several candidates face possible elimination if they fail to finish strongly here. Mr. 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. Mr. Bush and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio are facing nearly as much pressure to demonstrate that they can appeal to voters after being overshadowed by more conservative candidates. And Mr. 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.

Mr. Christie was pugnacious from his first statement, while Mr. Bush mixed ridicule — mostly aimed at Mr. Rubio — with sobering lectures, fighting about his policy ideas on missile defense and eminent domain. Mr. Kasich struck a more positive and pragmatic tone as he sought to reach moderate voters, saying his record of job growth in Ohio was a template for the nation.

Mr. Rubio seemed most unsettled when, during the early exchange with Mr. Christie, he attempted to pivot to attacking Mr. Obama for “trying to change this country” and leading the nation to “disaster.” Mr. Christie pounced, suggesting that Mr. Rubio was simply reciting rehearsed sound bites.

Taking a lecturing tone with Mr. Rubio, Mr. 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 Mr. Rubio responded with a line he had used earlier, Mr. Christie looked at the camera with seeming exasperation: “There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”

Mr. Bush appeared almost itchy to pile onto Mr. Rubio, at one point saying to Mr. Christie, “Chris, why don’t you mention my name so I can get into this,” and then mocked Mr. Rubio for inexperience.

Mr. Christie’s blistering attack may have rocked Mr. Rubio, but it is not clear that it will also lift Mr. Christie. The New Jersey governor, after rising in New Hampshire polls at the end of last year, has fallen here after facing an onslaught from a “super PAC” supporting Mr. Rubio. Often when one candidate attacks another in a crowded field, a third candidate benefits.

The alliance among the three governors, who have become frustrated as Mr. Rubio has captured the imagination of donors, voters and the news media, was striking during the lengthy debate, which was sponsored by ABC News and Independent Journal Review. Not only did they team up on Mr. Rubio, they avoided harsh attacks on one another.


Mr. 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 on Saturday night. After several debates where Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz were the most aggressive candidates, they appeared to be protecting their political advantages as they look to build on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary for a protracted fight for the nomination. At one point, however, during an exchange with Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump took aim at the audience — a risk so soon before the state’s primary.

“He wants to be a tough guy, and it doesn’t work very well,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Bush. As Mr. Bush sought to interrupt him, Mr. Trump told him dismissively, “Quiet,” setting off booing in the audience. Mr. Trump denounced those booing as “all of his donors and special interests,” drawing more jeers. “The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Cruz, who came in first in the Iowa caucuses, was a low-key presence on Saturday as he sought to have a respectable finish in New Hampshire and move on to more fertile ground in South Carolina. Mr. Cruz ducked when asked if he stood by his earlier criticism of Mr. Trump’s temperament and his assertion that Mr. Trump might use nuclear weapons, even against a friendly country like Denmark. Instead Mr. Cruz simply said that voters would assess who was “levelheaded” and had “judgment.”

The Boston Globe, whose summary of the debate is most likely to reach New Hampshire voters, also emphasized the focus on Senator Rubio:

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Marco Rubio, newly ascendant in recent polls, came under battering criticism Saturday night from rivals in the final Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary, undercutting the usual smooth performance that has helped him leap into the top tier.

A once-dominant Donald Trump, who was back on stage after skipping the previous debate, engaged in a sharp exchange with Jeb Bush and was booed repeatedly after he launched a bizarre and risky attack on the audience in the debate hall.

Trump also pledged to bring back “something a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” for the questioning of terrorism suspects. He was not asked to explain what that might be.

And so the verbal battle roared on, furious and unremitting, from the first minute of the two-plus-hour debate to the last.

The debate, sponsored by ABC News and held at Saint Anselm College, was the last before the vote, and the stakes were exceedingly high because large numbers of Republican voters are undecided or open to last-minute switching.

Rubio was the prime target in the raucous debate as his rivals tried to curb his recent surge and prevent him from becoming the chief alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz, who won Iowa. They called the freshman Florida senator inexperienced, calculating, and unable to move beyond his well-worn talking points.

“Marco, you have not been involved in a consequential decision where you have to be held accountable,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, leading the charge. He slammed Rubio for missing a vote on Hezbollah sanctions.

“That’s not leadership; that’s truancy,” he said.

Rubio, in turn, mocked Christie, even as he stressed the burdens of executive office, for not returning to his home state to lead when a major winter storm hit recently.

As Christie criticized Rubio for his scripted campaign, Rubio seemed to fall into a trap — giving the same answer, nearly word for word — to two questions asked within minutes. “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” he said.

“The memorized 25-second speech doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” Christie interjected.

“There it is! The memorized 25-second speech!” Christie yelled at one juncture. “There it is, everybody.”

Jeb Bush seemed to gain strength by attacking Trump with more gusto about whether government and businesses should be allowed to seize property by eminent domain. After Trump defended the practice as a necessary way to build roads and bridges, Bush — the only candidate to forcefully criticize Trump — raised Trump’s attempt to seize a home next to one of his Atlantic City casinos.

“What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property from an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City,” Bush said. “That’s not public purpose. That’s downright wrong . . . To turn this into a limousine parking lot for his casinos is not a public use.”

“He wants to be a tough guy. And it doesn’t work,” Trump responded. As Bush interjected, Trump brought his finger to his mouth and said, “Quiet.”

The crowd began to boo.

“That’s all of his donors and special interests,” Trump said, gesturing to the audience and criticizing the RNC for distributing tickets to the debate to top party donors.

“The RNC told us we have all donors in the audience,” he added. “The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money. I don’t want their money; I don’t need their money.”


Rubio struggled when questions turned to his decision in 2013 to work on a comprehensive immigration reform overhaul. Working with the so-called Gang of Eight, with four Democrats and four Republicans, Rubio pushed for an immigration plan that is now out of step with the GOP electorate. He later backed away from it and never pushed for the bill to be taken up in the House.

“Here’s the bottom line: We can’t get that legislation passed,” Rubio said, even though the legislation did pass the Senate. He then clarified, saying, “The legislation passed but it has no support.”

Christie again interjected.

“It’s abundantly clear that he didn’t fight for the legislation,” he said.

The candidates focused at length on foreign policy, especially North Korea and the Islamic State. Several offered their views on enhanced interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which Congress has banned and many people consider torture.

“I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use,” said Cruz, who said in some limited cases he would authorize the technique.

Trump advocated a return to the practice, contending that atrocities committed by the Islamic State merit a strong response. “Not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on,” Trump said. “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Cruz is not expected to do well in New Hampshire, even though he won Iowa, because the vote here is driven far more by social moderates than by religious conservatives.

Kasich has generally eschewed attacking his rivals, attempting to cast himself as a sunnier candidate. “Head out tomorrow and buy a seat belt because so much will happen in my first 100 days, it’ll make your head spin,” Kasich said.

Ben Carson entered the debate wounded after a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa, but also amid controversy over the Cruz campaign’s last-minute tactics. Carson accused Cruz of spreading rumors that he was dropping out of the race just as Iowans were heading to their caucus sites.

In audio distributed by the Carson campaign Thursday, Cruz supporters are heard leaving messages saying “Hello, this is the Cruz campaign with breaking news: Dr. Ben Carson will be suspending campaigning following tonight’s caucuses.”

Carson on Saturday night referenced Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” not to criticize fellow Republicans but said he was troubled by the Cruz campaign’s actions.

“Washington ethics basically says if it’s legal, you do what you have to do to win,” he said. “That’s not right. My ethics is you do what’s right.”

It’s not surprising that Rubio came under attack last night, of course. His surprisingly good finish in the Iowa Caucuses threatens to turn the race for the Republican nomination into a three-man race much sooner than many anticipated, and to the the extent any of the GOP Governors are going to have viable campaigns going forward they need to blunt Rubio’s momentum in the Granite State and, hopefully, get enough momentum of their own to finish a respectable third, or even second, place behind Donald Trump, who seems to be coasting to a win in the first in the nation primary. Based on the analysis of the debate from sources as diverse as The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro, PoliticoThe Washington Post’s Dan BalzThe Boston Herald, The New Hampshire Union Leader, and CNN, as well as a review of much of the reaction in real-time to the debate on social media, it does appear that Rubio did not do well at all. Whether this actually ends up blunting Rubio’s momentum is an entirely different question. In that regard, Nate Silver, who agrees with the general consensus that Rubio’s performance last night was, at best, average, also notes that there is some indication from Google Trends and other sources that the audience watching the debate may have had a different reaction than the pundits. Whether that is generally true of New Hampshire voters is something that we may not get a complete answer to until we start getting actual vote totals on Tuesday night since there will be limited time for polling between now and then that will give us an accurate picture of the state of the race. All the same, it does seem clear that Rubio struggled last night and that he left plenty of openings for his opponents which they will likely exploit in the remaining days before Tuesday. Whether it works is, largely something that we’ll have to wait to find out.

Looking at the state of the race as told to us by the polls, there’s actually been little change since the Iowa Caucuses. The three most recent polls, tracking polls that are current as of this morning from ARG, CNN/WMUR, and the University of Massachusetts, all continue to show Donald Trump with a double digit lead that appears to have been not impacted at all by his second place finish in Iowa. Marco Rubio is in second place in each of these polls, with the exception of the ARG poll where he ties for second with Ohio Governor John Kasich, followed by Ted Cruz, Kasich in the two non-ARG poll, Bush, and Christie. In the RealClearPolitics average for the Granite State, Donald Trump stands at an average of 31.2 point, which gives him an average lead of fifteen points over Marco Rubio, who is averaging 16.2 points in the polls. Rubio is followed by John Kasich at 12%, Ted Cruz at 11.7%, Jeb Bush at 8.8%, and Chris Christie at 5.0%. No other candidate is averaging at five percent or above. The numbers are roughly similar in the Pollster average.

If the polls are to be believed, Donald Trump appears to be headed to a victory in the Granite State given the size of his lead. That conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, though, given the fact that polling prior to the Iowa Caucuses showed that Trump was also headed for a victory there as well and he ended up finishing second. While it’s true that it’s far more difficult to poll in a caucus than a primary given the turnout issues involved in caucuses, the outcome in Iowa and the fact that the Trump campaign apparently does not have the kind of strong get out the vote ground operation that political tradition tells us is necessary to actually convert poll numbers into votes. Given that, New Hampshire may end up being another case where Trump’s vote totals falls short of his poll numbers, in which case it may well be time to start questioning his dominance in the campaign as a whole.

On the other hand, it may turn out that Trump’s supporters in New Hampshire will show up in sufficient numbers to give him a victory. At that point, his dominance in the race will be reconfirmed and the question will be who shares the top of the field with him heading to South Carolina. Regardless of how he does in New Hampshire, Ted Cruz is likely to remain a player in the race thanks both to his large campaign war chest and his appeal to evangelical voters who will play an important role in states such as South Carolina as well as many of the southern states that will be part of the “SEC Primary” in early March. The candidate who is most under pressure to perform well in New Hampshire, though, is Marco Rubio. With a strong performance in Iowa, he is in a position to close off the top of the field to any of the three GOP Governors currently trying to knock him down in the Granite State. If he succeeds in surviving those attacks, then it’s likely that the size of the GOP field will shrink significantly very quickly in the week and a half between New Hampshire and South Carolina. If Rubio falters, then it will likely give at least one of the Governors, and possibly more, enough reason to stay in the race for at least the next several weeks and it will also likely blunt the enthusiasm for Rubio that developed from his strong third place finish in Iowa.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    The big loser last night was Donald Trump, who finally had the meltdown we’ve been waiting for. Bush hit him hard on the eminent domain question and Trump couldn’t defend himself. He eventually turned on the audience for booing him, calling them fat cats (many of them were college students). He was more awful than usual. Don’t know if it will help or hurt him at the polls, though.

    I don’t think Rubio was as hurt as people thought. He was much stronger on foreign policy. He was much better in the later parts of the debate. And his answer on abortion — talking about the rights of the woman and that of the unborn being in conflict — was extremely well-received by culture conservatives and even some abortion moderates.

    Overall, I still favor the governors (Christie, Kasich and Bush) as being the more qualified. And I think they did well. But it might be too little too late.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    Rubio demonstrated what I have been saying about him all along – he is an empty suit. It remains to be seen if his robotic performance will hurt him on Tuesday and going forward but the fact that the media, pundits and the social media will be talking about nothing else the next 2 days won’t help him.

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    Several offered their views on enhanced interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which Congress has banned and many people consider torture.

    Oh, for shame, Boston Globe, for your mealy-mouthed pandering to right-wing PC. For shame.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Rubio; there’s no there there. I can’t believe the Republican establishment thinks he has the wherewithal to run this country.
    And Cruz managed to utter a paragraph that was completely fact-free…in other words it’s full of lies.

    Socialized medicine is a disaster. It does not work. If you look at the countries that have imposed socialized medicine, that have put the government in charge of providing medicine, what inevitably happens is rationing. You have a scarcity of doctors. … And that means the elderly are told: We’re going to ration a hip replacement; we’re going to ration a knee replacement. We’re going to ration end-of-life care.

    Why is it that Republican positions are so often based on lies?

  5. ElizaJane says:

    I was listening to the debate on the radio last night and I thought Rubio’s performance was excruciatingly, embarrassingly bad. He repeated exactly the same memorized speech not just twice but three times, including right as Christie was accusing him of just saying the same empty words over and over. It really was as if he were an automaton incapable turning himself off.

    If that debate performance didn’t spell the end for Rubio, then the debates are completely meaningless and the Democrats were right originally about not bothering with many. Or perhaps on television Rubio’s charming good looks distracted viewers from the vapidity of his words.

  6. EddieInCA says:


    Hal, buddy, I think you’re wrong.

    I think once SNL gets done with Rubio, it will be career defining, just as Jindal’s response to the SOTU has defined him ever since. Or Tina Fey’s Palin.

    Rubio was completely exposed. It’s was surreal.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Don’t forget Rubies SOTU response, glug, glug

  8. Tillman says:

    Rubio was eviscerated on live television. Once Christie pointed out how canned his responses were, even his better answers in the later points of the debate could be shown as 75% stump. That shell has cracked, and rotten yolk has come out. I was watching, and I still can’t believe he went back to a stump speech after being called out on it. Even Jeb got in a few kicks!

  9. Tillman says:

    @ElizaJane: Hahaha, you didn’t get to see how he started sweating! Honest to God, he pulled a Milhouse Nixon on the stage last night.

    He was a bad egg.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I can’t believe the Republican establishment thinks he has the wherewithal to run this country.

    He has everything they need per Grover Norquist:

    Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.

    Rubio’s perfect for them. Dumb and pliable.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    it’s beginning to appear, now that Rubio has to actually campaign, that he is overmatched and perhaps too light to make the team. He seemed Quayle-esque. Maybe he’s VP material and nothing more?

    I watched the re-cap on CNN, and on the Sunday morning news & opinion shows and Rubio was flat out embarrassing. Trump was his usual unthoughtful self, and Jeb did a pretty good job of being appalled by Trump. Christie’s mocking of Rubio showed that Rubio was unprepared to dig in and throw some punches.

  12. Hal_10000 says:


    You might be right. We’ll see what happens. SNL went after Bush I for the same thing but it didn’t hurt him. Should the three front-runners tumble, Christie might emerge as a dark horse candidate.

  13. Tyrell says:

    Most of the questions were meaningless, diversionary. The economy was not given much talk, nor foreign policy.

  14. EddieInCA says:


    Which part of the GOP base would support Christie in enough numbers to actually have him win a state? I doubt Christie would win even the NJ primary right now.

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Marco the wind-up doll.
    I wish I’d made that up.

  16. sam says:

    Shorter Chris Christie: You can’t have been there and done that because when you were there, there was no there there.