POLITICS

Marco Rubio Flops In New Hampshire

Will he recover in South Carolina?

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Marco Rubio may have to "dispel with" his hope of seizing the Republican presidential nomination.

The Florida senator enjoyed a burst of momentum after somehow claiming a third-place victory in the Iowa caucuses, and happily watched as GOP officials and donors began to rally around his presidential bid. Rubio's campaign believed that a top-tier finish in the New Hampshire primary would put him in a position to be the establishment favorite who would appeal to moderates and take on insurgent candidates like real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But Rubio's disappointing fifth-place finish in the Granite State on Tuesday evening, behind Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Cruz, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, put that dream on hold.

It's unclear whether a single factor led to Rubio's disappointing loss in New Hampshire, but it may have been his unusually shaky performance in Saturday's Republican presidential debate, when he walked into a brick wall named Chris Christie -- an error Rubio acknowledged on Tuesday night.

"Our disappointment tonight is not on you, it's on me," Rubio told supporters in New Hampshire, drawing a sharp contrast with his confident posture after Iowa.

"I did not do well on Saturday night," he added. "But listen to me: That will never happen again."

A rattled and visibly sweaty Rubio repeated the same talking point over and over again during the debate, much to the delight of the New Jersey governor. Christie called Rubio robotic, overly scripted and ultimately too inexperienced to assume the office of the presidency.

"I think the whole race changed last night. Because, you know, there was a march among the chattering class to anoint Sen. Rubio," Christie bragged in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union." 

"I think after last night, that's over. So I think there could be four or five tickets out of New Hampshire, because the race is so unsettled now," he added.

Rubio should have been ready for the attack. Christie, along with Kasich and Bush, have been arguing for months that the country can't afford to put another first-term senator in the White House. Indeed, Christie himself made that point on the campaign trail a week before the candidates took the stage in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday.

There was tension in the air Tuesday night in Manchester as voters stared at the monitors at Rubio's watch party, playing Trump's speech after he claimed victory in the state. Many admitted they were shocked at how poorly their candidate finished in the first-in-the nation primary.

"I was not expecting this at all," said Diane Miller of Camden. "I really thought he would come in at least ahead of Kasich. This is unbelievable."

Miller, 64, said she was torn between Trump and Rubio, but eventually decided on the Florida senator while she was standing inside her voting booth on Tuesday

"I still like him, and stand by my decision," she said. "He's young and brings energy. I think he will appeal to the 30-something group."

Signs of Rubio's disappointing finish were beginning to emerge as voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, and some, like Lisa Harting, could no longer justify their previous decision to support Rubio. 

"I got in there, and I just couldn't do it," she said, as she exited her polling location at Manchester Memorial high school in Ward 8. "I just pictured him repeating those lines at the debate, so I made a quick decision and voted for John Kasich."

Harting isn't alone. Several others admitted they voted for Kasich instead of Rubio, many of them appreciative of the time he spent in the state.

"Kasich bet the ranch, he's been here for months," said Bruce Lafleur of Manchester, who said he decided to support Kasich this week. "I wanted to vote for Rubio, but Christie really got to him at that debate. I just couldn't support a candidate that could possibly melt under pressure like that."

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- who dropped out of the race himself after finishing second-to-last in Iowa -- also gave Rubio's rivals a choice opportunity to characterize him as young and untested. Santorum endorsed Rubio, but couldn't name a single accomplishment by the Florida Republican in a television interview. The Christie and Bush campaigns even clipped portions of the interview, promoting it on television spots across New Hampshire.

Rubio and his team put on brave faces, arguing that the misstep mattered more to reporters and armchair pundits than actual New Hampshire voters. The senator insisted he didn't care if people got sick of hearing him say the same line over and over. But on Monday night, the eve of the primary, Rubio did it again -- this time repeating a different line in his stump speech before awkwardly pausing, as if to catch himself.

The 44-year-old Cuban-American senator entered the race in April of 2015 pitching himself as the candidate of a new generation. He touted his family story as an example of the quintessential American dream, and made the case that he, with his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was better prepared to take on America's challenges abroad. And he saw some success. Bolstered by his usually strong performances in the early debates, Rubio managed to secure a number of endorsements from members of Congress.

But now, as the race turns to the Palmetto State, where Trump also holds a large lead, things get even more complicated for Rubio. Theoretically, he should do well with South Carolina's conservative voters. But with added momentum in New Hampshire, a strong campaign presence on the ground and an endorsement from the state's senior senator, Lindsey Graham, Bush could prove resurgent yet. He is reportedly bringing in the big guns -- his brother, former President George W. Bush, who remains popular in the state and may even campaign alongside him.

It may not be all bad news for Rubio. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, finished fourth in the GOP New Hampshire primary during the 2012 election before going on to carry South Carolina. A candidate with as much buzz as Rubio is usually expected to win an early state, making the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses that much more crucial to his presidential bid.

Before the polls had even closed in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Rubio's campaign announced multiple campaign stops across South Carolina, showing that it's looking ahead. 

In the end, helped by Rubio's undoing even before the New Hampshire primary, Bush and Kasich bought themselves added time and money to compete in future nominating contests.

A race that should have seen a winnowing of the field after New Hampshire will now likely morph into a bruising battle between several candidates hoping to secure the party's nomination at the convention in Cleveland this summer.

Samantha-Jo Roth contributed reporting from Manchester, New Hampshire. Igor Bobic reported from Washington, D.C.

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