Something funny happened to Marco Rubio in the GOP debate on Saturday night as he seemed to be on his way to achieving second place in the New Hampshire primaries. In olden days one would say that he sounded like a broken record, in computer terms perhaps a virus had messed with his system. Not only did Rubio repeatedly assert in a weirdly robotic routine that “Obama knows exactly what his doing,” he repeated the sentence even after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had taunted him for repeating him. The somewhat disturbing sequence sparked a Twitterstorm of discussion, debate and jokes at Rubio’s expense.
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It was a moment of riveting television, which might only be rivaled in the next few days in its viral spread by the cameo appearance of Democrat Bernie Sanders with Larry David on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Rubio in fact recovered in the latter part of the debate, resuming the polished eloquence that has turned him into the rising star of the primaries season so far, but the damage was already done. The Florida senator can only pray that his mechanical glitch, reminiscent of Disney’s Wall-E, won’t overshadow his public appearances henceforth and won’t be listed among historic debate gaffes such as the 2012 mega-hits, Binders of Women by Mitt Romney or Oops by former Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Christie, who incessantly reminds the audience of his past as a federal prosecutor, proved his mettle this time by zeroing in on Rubio from the get-go and keeping him in his sights until the Florida senator was hit. The tactic wasn’t a fluke: Christie needs to achieve a reasonable result in New Hampshire in order to keep his candidacy viable and he decided to climb up at Rubio’s expense. To all intents and purposes, he seemed to succeed in his mission.
Christie’s offensive was part of an uprising of the three governors - he of New Jersey, Jeb Bush of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio - who seemed to band together to chip away at Rubio in order to bolster themselves. They repeatedly invoked the challenge of managing complex systems in relatively large states and compared them to what Christie basically depicted as the deficient credentials and meager achievements of US Senators generally and Marco Rubio in particular. Of course, by siphoning off votes from Rubio, who had been steadily rising in the polls, the three amigos will have done a service not only to themselves but to the current frontrunner, Donald Trump as well.
Kasich, who presents himself as a Mr. Nice Guy who does not stoop to personal attacks on his rivals, had a good evening that bolstered his chances of coming in second, a position that some polls had given him even before Rubio’s potential fall. Bush, on the other hand, did not stand out among the crowd as he needed to, with the exception of a successful ambush on Trump, who has previously made Bush’s life miserable.
Trump expounded on his support for the principle of eminent domain - a rather obscure topic for a presidential debate - but Bush then jumped him with the accusation that Trump had tried to use eminent domain in order to seize the land of a little old lady. Trump denied, then angrily shushed Bush when he interrupted him, then got booed by the crowd and then poured fat on the fire by claiming that the audience was made up of Bush’s donors anyway. It wasn’t one of the New York real estate tycoon’s finer moments.
But this flareup was an exception to Trump’s otherwise docile return from his angry boycott of the previous pre-Iowa debate, which may not have worked out so well for him, given his second place finish. His only other snarky comments were reserved for Iowa winner Ted Cruz, whom Trump has accused of using dirty tricks in order to secure his win, though Trump has withdrawn his demand for a formal recount.
Cruz also seemed tamer than usual, preferring to stay out of the Christie-Rubio and Bush-Trump lines of fire. In fact, he might have emerged unscathed from the evening were it not for Ben Carson, who, like Trump, has also accused Cruz of using underhanded methods but who, unlike Trump, refuses to let it go. Cruz apologized profusely for his staff’s false claims last week on the day of the Iowa caucuses that Carson had left the race. But when he tried to pin the blame on CNN, the network retorted with a terse statement in which it asserted, more or less, that the Texas Senator was lying. Carson, in one of his better debate moments, refused to accept Cruz’s apology and vowed to remain in the race - though that won’t be enough to erase the bizarre impression that he himself left by his strange reluctance to take the stage at the start of the debate.
The launching of the North Korean ballistic missile on Saturday spurred the less than impressive ABC moderators to devote more time than usual to foreign and national security affairs. Although the candidates were critical of the Obama administration, they all stopped short of urging a military attack against Pyongyang, with Trump advocating that China somehow be forced to deal with the matter. The candidates all lambasted Obama’s war on ISIS as well, though they seemed to concentrate their fire on criticism of things that Obama supposedly hadn’t done even though he actually had. “We should ask the Saudis” Rubio said, 48 hours after Riyadh had offered to send troops to fight ISIS in Syria. Rubio also contributed the line “Obama has betrayed Israel”, which was the only mention made of the Jewish state throughout the entire evening.
At the end of the two hour debate, held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, it seemed that Trump and Cruz had held their own, Rubio and perhaps Carson had been wounded, Christie, Bush and Kasich had helped themselves to one degree or another and Carly Fiorina had rightfully railed against her arbitrary exclusion. There is no certainty that these perceptions, voiced by many analysts and commentators in the post-debate discussion, will be reflected in tomorrow’s vote as well. New Hampshire voters are notorious for not making up their minds before the very last minute, not only about what candidate to vote for but in which party to vote in the first place, a choice sanctioned by the state’s rules.
Nonetheless, the Tuesday ballot may not provide the clarification that many people had expected before the debate. And even if the winners seem clear right now, one of the most expected feature of a New Hampshire vote is that takes everyone by surprise.