MANCHESTER, N.H. — There have been no higher stakes on a Republican debate stage in the 2016 campaign for president than there were Saturday night.
Coming off a strong Iowa finish, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tripped up early under attack from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who are jockeying for the same Republican voters.
At the same time, the candidates on the still-crowded stage seemed unwilling to mix it up with Donald Trump, the national front-runner for months who needs a win in New Hampshire on Tuesday to avoid starting the 2016 race with two consecutive losses.
And then there was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the champion college debater who shared a deeply personal moment during an otherwise forgettable night while trying to build on his victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Here are some takeaways from Saturday night’s GOP debate:
RUBIO STUCK IN A LOOP
Rubio experienced his worst moment in a presidential debate at the worst time, stumbling badly when forced to answer the fundamental question posed by rivals of his candidacy: whether he has the experience necessary to lead the nation.
As a first-term senator with no executive experience, Rubio’s resume is remarkably similar to Barack Obama before he became president. Rubio tried to turn the question around by charging that Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing” by “undertaking a systematic effort to change this country.”
The answer was quickly challenged by Christie: “I like Marco Rubio, and he’s a smart person and a good guy, but he simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States.”
A clearly rattled Rubio responded by delivering the same line about Obama not once, but twice. And Christie made sure New Hampshire voters knew it: “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
It was a cringe-worthy moment for Rubio three days before a New Hampshire contest in which he hopes to knock Christie, Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich from the race. Even if it doesn’t significantly change the contest in New Hampshire, the moment raises questions about Rubio’s readiness to take on Democrat Hillary Clinton in a general election debate.
CHRISTIE PULLS NO PUNCHES
He is barely registering in recent preference polls, but the New Jersey governor was the toughest candidate on the debate stage Saturday night. And that’s no small feat with the tough-talking Trump at center stage.
At seemingly every turn, Christie zeroed in on Rubio, pelting him with zingers about his inexperience and record in Washington. Calling out Rubio on his missed votes in the Senate, Christie charged, “That’s not leadership. That’s truancy.”
And when Rubio didn’t answer a moderator’s question about why he backpedaled on an immigration proposal he’d helped write when it appeared to become politically unpopular, Christie called him out.
“The question was, did he fight for his legislation. It’s abundantly clear that it he didn’t.” Then he twisted the knife: “That’s not what leadership is. That’s what Congress is.”
It was a performance Christie badly needed as he teeters on the edge of irrelevancy in the crowded Republican contest. Is it too little too late to rescue his campaign?