After six months of wrangling on various TV stages, the seven Republican presidential candidates who met in Manchester, N.H., Saturday night finally produced A Moment.
The sharp exchange between Marco Rubio and Chris Christie near the beginning of the ABC News event cast a sudden shadow on Rubio’s bright and rising star.
“This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s trying to make the U.S. a different country,” said Rubio passionately.
It was a thought he had expressed with feeling before, but on this night Rubio said it again and again and again – almost word for word – including several times within the space of two minutes. Christie was on him each time, calling him out for the robotic repetition and characterizing it as “what Washington does.”
The crowd seemed to be with Christie on this, as was much of the digital world. Suddenly there were mash-ups of Rubio’s repetitions everywhere, and Twitter and other social media platforms were rife with derision. Commentators competed in ridiculing the Rubio “glitch.”
James Fallows, a longtime journalist who now writes for The Atlantic, compared the moment to iconic debate incidents that haunted vice presidential candidates Dan Quayle in 1988 and James Stockdale in 1992.
In this case, Christie was comparing the 44-year-old Rubio to the Barack Obama of 2008, who was 46. “He simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States and make these decisions,” Christie said. “We’ve watched it happen, everybody, for the last seven years. The people of New Hampshire are smart. Do not make the same mistake again.”
Rubio came back with a punch or two of his own. Christie had seen his state’s debt rating downgraded nine times, he said, and Christie had neglected recent flooding back home to get back to campaigning. But each time he segued into the line about Obama knowing what he was doing. It seemed important to Rubio to establish that Obama’s failings and misdeeds were caused by wrong-headedness rather than any lack of maturity or experience.
But after four repetitions of the same language, the concern seemed to have become an obsession.
Will such a fleeting instant do lasting damage? It is possible it will evanesce, as most of the snarling and insults of earlier debates have lost their edge. But Rubio’s rivals have been searching for a weapon, a way to bring the rocketing Tea Party favorite to earth.
With his strong third place in the Iowa caucuses last week, Rubio had staked out a claim to being the Establishment candidate in opposition to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas. More than a few observers began to describe a path to the nomination for Rubio where none had seemed to exist before.
If Cruz could not reproduce his Iowa triumph elsewhere, and the other Establishment figures failed to get traction, Cruz might be the last alternative for those party figures who cannot countenance the brazen businessman from Manhattan.
In New Hampshire polling, Trump has long led the field with 30 percent and more. Rubio had emerged in some soundings as the runner-up, with percentages in the high teens. Cruz, the winner in Iowa, was sometimes third in a tie with John Kasich, governor of Ohio. Kasich has staked his campaign’s viability on an impressive performance here on Tuesday.
Christie and Kasich, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are the last three governors in the field following the departure of five others. Both Kasich and Bush spent most of their time on Saturday night building their own cases rather than going after Rubio (although Bush also had yet another of his frequent tussles with Trump, this time over eminent domain.)
But Christie’s frontal assault more than made up for it. Whether this will reverse Rubio’s momentum is a matter of speculation. Even more uncertain is the prospect of a boost for Christie or one of the other governors.
For his part, Trump was in fine fettle, taunting Bush (“Now you want to be a tough guy”) and jabbing at Cruz for his campaign’s attempt to hijack some of Carson’s support at the last minute in Iowa. Cruz took the latter incident seriously and apologized for those in his campaign who tried to tell Carson supporters at the caucuses that Carson was dropping out.
Carson called it “an example of Washington ethics.”
Cruz replied: “Ben is a good and honorable man [with] an amazing life story that has inspired millions, including me. When this transpired, I apologized to him then and I do so now. Ben, I’m sorry.”
An eighth candidate of note who has been included in the debates since August, Carly Fiorina, was excluded when she did not meet the criteria set by ABC News and the Republican National Committee. The hosts determined she had not finished high enough in Iowa or in national polls or New Hampshire polls. They resisted calls to reconsider from a number of prominent Republicans.