MANCHESTER, N.H. — Moments after the Republican debate ended Saturday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie walked over to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, shook his hand and offered some customary words of encouragement.
Rubio stared mutely back, looking flummoxed, Christie told close aides moments later, according to one Christie adviser who was in the room.
Christie and his team were buoyant after the New Jersey governor mauled Rubio in a one-on-one face-off in the first half-hour of the debate, repeatedly mocking Rubio for what he called his lack of experience and accomplishments. It was, clearly, a bad night for Rubio. The question now is: Who benefits from the fallout?
Rubio came into the debate with momentum, following a surprisingly strong third-place finish at the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. But he got in trouble Saturday starting with the very first question that came his way, which was about “readiness to be president.” The senator, who said he was “proud” of his record, then attempted to shift the discussion to President Barack Obama.
Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during the Republican debate in Manchester, N.H., on Saturday. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
“Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world,” Rubio said.
The moderators then turned to Christie to ask about his criticisms of Rubio’s experience. When Christie doubled down, Rubio returned to his line about Obama three more times. He kept repeating the comment even as Christie mocked him for resorting to a “memorized” sound bite.
“I want the people at home to think about this. That’s what Washington, D.C., does,” Christie said of Rubio. “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
In the spin room afterward, Rubio’s communications director, Alex Conant, denied that the comments about Obama were scripted.
“Everywhere that Marco goes, he focuses on Barack Obama and uniting the country,” Conant told Yahoo News, adding, “I mean, you weren’t allowed notes in that debate.”
Rubio’s aides in the spin room argued that he had put on a strong performance, despite the attacks from Christie. Conant said the senator expected to take fire from several other candidates.
“Look, we knew that they were coming after us tonight,” Conant explained. “The goal for us was surviving. We certainly did that.”
Rubio’s senior adviser Todd Harris echoed the notion that Rubio had weathered the storm.
“Every other campaign said before this debate started that they had one singular goal, which was to take out Marco Rubio. They threw their best shots, and they didn’t do it,” Harris said. “There was a big rough-and-tumble at the start, Marco got stronger every single minute, and by the end of the debate, we raised more money during this debate than we’ve raised during any other debate.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answers a question during the Republican presidential primary debate on Saturday in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: David Goldman/AP)
When asked about the campaign’s fundraising haul, Harris said the campaign would “probably give out numbers tomorrow.”
Rubio is widely seen as being in competition for votes with his rivals from the more mainstream Republican base: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Christie. Each of these three finished behind Rubio in Iowa. Harris said Rubio’s team particularly expected Christie to take aim at the senator during the debate.
“Chris Christie said, ‘My goal is to take Marco out,’ because he has to, because he’s running on fumes, because he’s on life support,” Harris said. “This was his one chance to inflict mortal damage on Marco Rubio. He took his best shot, and he failed.”
Backers of Kasich, who is hoping to benefit from the support of independent voters here Tuesday, said Christie’s attacks on Rubio would hopefully benefit their candidate.
"I thought it was tough for both of them. I think any time you go negative, there are a certain number of voters who don’t react well to that, and I think the attacks on Rubio probably take some toll,” said Kasich adviser Bob Walker, a former congressman from Pennsylvania. “Negative campaigning works. But we’re focused on saying there’s a positive way of approaching presidential elections, and we think that’s actually a winning agenda.”
Christie finished in 10th place in Iowa, but his allies have predicted he will be one of “four or five” candidates to emerge from New Hampshire. Christie’s senior strategist Mike DuHaime told Yahoo News that Rubio had unquestionably had a “bad” night.
“It was comical how many times he repeated himself,” DuHaime said of Rubio. “When you get accused of saying the same speech over and over again and your response is to say the same speech over and over again — it was pretty laughable. So, you know, it was a bad — it was a really bad performance. I don’t think anybody can say it was anything but a really bad performance for Marco Rubio tonight. He’s usually a very good debater, so the standards are high, but it was a bad performance tonight.”
Yahoo News attempted to get another contender, Donald Trump, to weigh in on Rubio. As is his custom after debates, Trump took the high road when asked if he thought Rubio did badly.
“I don’t know,” Trump said of Rubio. “You’d have to ask him.”