For most of this week, it seemed like the Iowa caucus results had finally imposed some order on the sprawling, chaotic Republican presidential contest. Sure, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump had finished first and second, but among the more establishment-friendly candidates, it was Marco Rubio who was rising above the pack. It was suddenly easy to envision more mainstream GOP voters and the party's elites quickly falling behind Rubio, which would transform the race into a three-way battle between him, Trump, and Cruz.
That still might well happen. But Saturday's debate shows it's far from certain.
Marco Rubio had a bad night. When Chris Christie accused him of being unable to do anything except repeat a "memorized 25-second speech," Rubio responded by repeating the same line he had just said minutes earlier. "There it is," Christie said. "The memorized 25-second speech." It was the moment of the debate, perfect for a video mashup and certain to be endlessly replayed on TV and on the internet.
Now, nobody knows whether this will affect New Hampshire voters' decisions in the final few days before their primary Tuesday. Indeed, most commentators — including at Vox — thought Cruz had hurt himself in the final debate before Iowa, but he ended up outperforming his poll numbers there. For all we know, voters will find this attack irrelevant. Who cares whether a candidate repeats the same sentence, anyway?
But Christie's attack wasn't about Rubio's oratory. It was meant to raise larger questions about whether he's ready to be president — and whether he's ready to take on Democrats this fall. And it was intended to sow serious doubts, among both New Hampshire voters and GOP elites nationally, about whether the party should fall behind Rubio so quickly.
Rubio looked well-positioned to become the mainstream Republican choice after New Hampshire. The debate calls that into question.
Until Saturday's debate, everything seemed to be going according to Rubio's plan. His team had specifically been saying that they hoped Rubio would finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina, in a strategy some had dubbed "3-2-1."
Indeed, his campaign had so successfully lowered expectations for his Iowa performance that the third place he eventually got would be viewed as a win (as it was). And since Iowa, he's gotten a bounce to second place in New Hampshire polls — at long last elevating him above his three establishment-friendly rivals Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. A strong Rubio second in New Hampshire on Tuesday would likely drive two or even all three of those candidates out of the race, and finally unite the mainstream of the party around the Florida senator. Some were even quietly daring to hope that Rubio's momentum could carry him past Trump into first.
But Rubio's unimpressive debate performance calls all this into question. The candidate who seemed to have everything under control suddenly looked confused and uncertain. Party elites who viewed him as their savior now might doubt whether that's true. And New Hampshire voters who were coming to think of him as the most electable candidate may no longer be so sure.
All this really only matters so much as it affects the results of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, which is a really crucial juncture in the GOP race. If Kasich, Bush, or Christie manages to outperform Rubio in the Granite State — or if several of them do — the political world will conclude that the Florida senator may not be as formidable as the Iowa results implied. And Rubio's team doesn't have the luxury of lowered expectations anymore, since they've said they hope he'll finish second in New Hampshire.
The good news for Rubio is that it doesn't seem self-evidently clear whether any one of Christie, Kasich, or Bush will benefit from the debate. Still, if Rubio stumbles in New Hampshire, the GOP race will likely fail to clarify, and will instead continue to be the chaotic, muddled mess it's been for months.