Marco Rubio is a very intelligent person. Marco Rubio is a very talented politician. Marco Rubio is a very good debater.
Where the hell was that Marco Rubio during the last debate before the New Hampshire primary?
Rubio had a terrible, terrible night. Chris Christie, of all people, managed to land an attack on him — that he simply robotically repeats his talking points — that has the potential to haunt his campaign, or at least focus the attacks against him. And Rubio's response was … to robotically repeat his talking points.
This is a bad time for Rubio to stumble. He's a few days out from an Iowa caucus where he and his campaign managed to spin a third-place finish as a win because they outperformed expectations. He's a few days ahead of a New Hampshire primary where he and his campaign have set the expectation that they're going to come in second (which is consistent with the polls). And he's only a few weeks away from a South Carolina primary where his campaign needs to come in first.
Do voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina care about Rubio's terrible debate performance? Who knows. But the political establishment and media do. And those are constituencies Rubio can't afford to lose.
The "Rubio glitch"
Chris Christie's jab at Rubio's "30-second speech," launched early in the debate, was good. But it wasn't great. Not until Marco Rubio proved him right by repeating the same two lines in his response to Christie that he'd said a few minutes earlier.
Then he did it again.
Then, an hour later — after asking to be allowed to respond to another candidate — he repeated it a fourth time.
You do not have to take my word for it. You can watch this video, which splices all four instances of the Rubio "glitch" together:
It was almost as if Rubio were working hard to prove Christie right: that he really is a political novice who is wholly reliant on his script, and can't function when presented with the slightest bit of difficulty.
Now it's an attack that everyone watching the debate (or reading about it afterward) is likely to remember. And it might follow Rubio through the crucial last days of campaigning in New Hampshire.
Politicians repeat themselves all the time — especially when they're on the campaign trail in the late stages of a primary. They give the same stump speech multiple times a day, and then use selections from that speech during town halls and debates.
It's really hard to avoid. So this is basically Marco Rubio's worst nightmare.
Christie branded Rubio tonight. Now every time Rubio goes back to his stump--every time he talks--people will see it as robotic talking pts— Dana Houle (@DanaHoule) February 7, 2016
It might not hurt Rubio with voters. It might hurt him with the media.
It would be foolish to say that Rubio's disastrous debate performance tonight will doom his campaign. It would be doubly foolish to say it will hurt him in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
Lots of voters just don't care about who does well in debates — which is something Rubio knows better than anyone. Rubio was, by acclamation, the winner of the first few Republican debates. And it did not help him in the polls at all.
Other voters may very well appreciate hearing the idea that Barack Obama is trying to fundamentally reshape America and destroy what makes it exceptional over, and over, and over again. After all, plenty of New Hampshirites see their preferred candidates give the same speech more than once at campaign events, and it doesn't stop them from going again.
But debates matter to some political professionals. They matter to some donors. And they matter to the media.
And political professionals, donors, and the media matter to Marco Rubio.
The fact that Rubio "won" early debates to begin with was decided by the media. It didn't give him a polling boost, but it kept his campaign credible for a while.
And his strong early debate performances, especially compared to Jeb Bush's conspicuously lackluster ones, helped start momentum toward designating Rubio, not Bush, the most credible "establishment lane" candidate — including a flight of Bush donors toward Rubio starting at the end of 2015.
The momentum to crown Rubio the "establishment" candidate accelerated after Iowa, thanks to one of those strange political dynamics in which something becomes real because people say it is. Marco Rubio didn't win Iowa by an objective standard, but because he got more votes than expected — and came closer to second-place Donald Trump than expected — he beat expectations.
That made the media and donors look at him as the candidate with "momentum" coming out of Iowa and into New Hampshire, which helped solidify cred with the political establishment — Rubio started picking up endorsements more frequently — and with donors. Jeb Bush's donors are reportedly planning to abandon him after New Hampshire; Rubio would be poised to take advantage of that.
Rubio's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad debate might not change any donors' minds, either, necessarily. But it's going to be something that they, as well as campaign reporters and pundits, remember.
Marco Rubio has had a pretty easy time of it so far. It can only get harder from here.