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Rubio starts digging out after debate debacle

·Chief National Correspondent
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BEDFORD, N.H. — In his first public appearances the morning after a terrible debate performance, Marco Rubio tried to push back Sunday against the idea that he lacks accomplishments as a lawmaker, a key part of the argument being made against him by rivals who say he is too inexperienced to be president.

On a morning talk show, the U.S. senator from Florida argued that “no one on that stage last night has more experience or better understands the national security issues before this country than I do.”

And at a town hall event here, Rubio asserted that among Republican presidential candidates, he is “the only who’s ever done anything meaningful about” dismantling Obamacare.

Rubio was referring to his opposition to a $2.5 billion provision in the president’s health care law that Rubio refers to as a “taxpayer-funded bailout.” Some experts dispute this characterization, and the details of the provision are arcane and likely not accessible to many voters.

The problem for Rubio is that his role in the Obamacare fight that he is touting is bound to become bogged down in a debate over the “risk corridors” in the law that were central to the issue. This does not present Rubio to voters as the clear-cut kind of anti-Obama crusader that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who shut down the government in 2013, was.

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But after a Saturday night debate in which Rubio was mauled by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who asserted the first-term senator is not ready to be president — Rubio needs to do something to reverse the impression that he is a lightweight.

“It’s a real problem for me,” Ari Pollock, a 43-year-old real estate attorney, said of the experience issue. Pollock stood waiting in a crowded middle school cafeteria for Rubio to arrive at the town hall meeting.

“I’m still trying to figure out if [Rubio] can really lead,” said Lauren Keeler, an interior designer who moved to New Hampshire from Vermont three years ago.

Pollock, the real estate lawyer, said he had been leaning toward voting for a governor in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary until Rubio came in a strong third in the Iowa caucuses last Monday, and began to surge in the polls. After Iowa, Pollock said, Rubio’s momentum “got me more interested.” But when Christie took Rubio down in the debate Saturday night, that shifted Pollock’s support away from Rubio.

“I thought [Rubio] had a tough time of it and the governors raised some good points about experience,” Pollock said, referring to Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Pollock said he is leaning toward voting for either Kasich or Bush.

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If Rubio were to walk in, admit he didn’t do well at the debate and vow to do better, Pollock said, “then I’ll start listening again.”

But that did not happen. Rubio spoke for about 15 minutes and then took only a handful of questions, apologizing for leaving so quickly because he had another town hall event scheduled.

Rubio’s opponents were all too happy to pile on.

“He is totally exposed,” said a Bush supporter in New Hampshire from out of state. “Take Nolan Ryan’s fastball from him and he would do poorly. Same thing with Marco. His super power of memorizing a couple pivotal lines and saying them flawlessly has been taken away because people will be looking for that.”

Bush also, on “Fox News Sunday,” pinged Rubio as “totally scripted and kind of robotic” because Rubio repeated the same phrase three times within the space of a few minutes during the debate as Christie pressed the attack against him.

And Christie himself on Sunday morning used the debate performance to further call into question the conventional wisdom that Republicans who do not want Cruz or businessman Donald Trump to win the nomination must unite behind Rubio.

“All week, the media is trying to make that we coalesce around Marco Rubio,” Christie said on “Fox News Sunday.’ “After you saw that performance last night, do you think they should be coalescing around Marco Rubio? Do you think that’s the kind of performance, that’s the kind of leadership that we want to see on the stage against Hillary Clinton?”

Of course, there were plenty of Rubio supporters who were not deterred from supporting him by the debate performance.

“I thought he was flustered, but he did well,” said Jeremy Pollard, 36. “He’s the only one who can beat the Democrats. There’s enough people out there who don’t like Trump or Cruz.”

But for voters like Pollock, who were undecided about Rubio but were taking a second look after his Iowa win, the debate debacle will undoubtedly linger in their minds as they go to the polls on Tuesday.

In the larger scheme of things, that could benefit Cruz more than anyone else. Many observers see Cruz and Rubio as the two Republicans most likely to be left standing if the primary becomes a two-man contest.

On the other hand, another scenario that’s just as possible is that Trump wins New Hampshire Tuesday — as all polling so far has predicted he will do — and the primary strings out as a three-man or even four-candidate race well into the spring, and possibly to the convention.

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