Manchester, N.H. — Marco Rubio’s momentum just hit a brick wall in the Granite State.
In the home stretch of a New Hampshire primary famous for its last-minute voting swings, the Florida senator stumbled during Saturday night’s debate under attack from Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Both candidates will find themselves on the ropes if they can’t finish strong here on Tuesday, and they ganged up on their chief rival early, questioning his readiness for the White House. Rubio appeared rattled by the onslaught, repeating the same talking point three times in a heavily scrutinized sequence that was easily his worst of the entire debate season.
Each of Iowa’s top-three finishers — Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, returning to center stage after he skipped last week’s debate — had cause to believe they would be in the crosshairs of their opponents as the night began. But with Trump viewed as the clear front-runner to win New Hampshire, and Cruz courting a narrower slice of conservative voters in the state, it was Rubio who absorbed the most damaging blows as both Christie and Bush tried to stave off electoral extinction.
Polls have shown Rubio, Christie, Bush, and John Kasich competing for the same sprawling class of center-right voters in New Hampshire. Rubio had been surging coming into the debate, and seemed to be achieving some separation from the pack thanks to his stronger-than-expected third-place finish in Iowa. But a rocky performance at St. Anselm’s College may have opened the door for his rivals to halt his climb.
But the chief beneficiary of Rubio’s stumble could actually turn out to be Cruz. Polls have of New Hampshire have shown him running competitively in the low to mid teens, and he looms as a quiet threat to finish second behind Trump if any combination of Christie, Bush, and Kasich succeeds in peeling away votes from Rubio on Tuesday.
Following easily his weakest debate performance last week in Iowa — “ROUGH NIGHT FOR CRUZ” blared the Des Moines Register’s front page in that debate’s aftermath — the Texas senator was polished and assertive Saturday night. He spoke movingly of losing his half-sister to drug addiction, an issue of urgency in this state. And unlike his fellow senator, Cruz came under virtually no scrutiny from his opponents.
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