MANCHESTER, N.H. — Marco Rubio headed into the latest Republican debate ready for an onslaught of attacks about his experience and readiness for the White House, while a trio of his rivals sought a breakout performance before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary — an election critical to their presidential hopes.
Donald Trump also was rejoining his competitors in the debate arena Saturday night after having skipped the previous faceoff in Iowa. He finished second in the Iowa caucuses and has spent the past week complaining bitterly about the result.
While Iowa shook Trump’s grip on the Republican field, he has led New Hampshire preference polls for months and the state is still seen as his to lose in Tuesday’s voting. However, Rubio appears to be gaining steam following his stronger-than-expected third-place finish in Iowa, drawing big crowds across New Hampshire — as well as a flurry of criticism from other contenders who say the first-term Florida senator lacks accomplishments.
“He’s a great guy, but he’s not a leader,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has repeatedly derided Rubio as a “bubble boy” whose staff protects him from having to answer tough questions about his record and what he would do as president.
Bush, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have largely staked their presidential hopes on New Hampshire. Those falling short of a standout finish in New Hampshire will face party pressure to quit the race, particularly if Rubio has another strong night.
Bush in particular has struggled in many of the previous GOP debates. While many of his rivals spent Saturday huddled in debate preparations, Bush spoke to an overflow crowd in Bedford, where he thanked people for asking substantive questions.
“The questions on the debate stage will probably be really stupid,” he said. “I’m not very optimistic.”