Marco Rubio entered the ABC New Hampshire debate on the upswing, only to have Chris Christie bat him down. Rubio effectively turned a third-place finish in Iowa into a springboard for a top-two finish in New Hampshire. But Christie wasn't about to let him sail to victory without a fight. Christie launched into a brutal and bruising attack on Rubio's inexperience, belittling his record in the Senate, calling him over-scripted and underprepared, contrasting senatorial discussion with executive action.
Rubio was stunned. In previous debates he had been deadly with a counterpunch. Here he made one or two critiques of Christie's fiscal record, but failed to knock the New Jersey governor back on his heels. He was overly focused on Christie's criticism that Barack Obama wasn't ready for the presidency and the results have been incompetence in government. No, Rubio said, Obama was ready, and that's why he's been so successful achieving his agenda. The implicit message is that a President Rubio would be equally effective for conservative causes. But Christie stepped on that message by sarcastically noting that Rubio rarely departs from the rehearsed mini-speeches he delivers on the trail. Rubio's response was, amazingly, to repeat one of those mini-speeches.
It was a somewhat baffling move, evidence that Rubio had been rattled and the media may have been too quick to declare him a GOP frontrunner. But by the end of the debate Rubio had recovered, demonstrating his knowledge of foreign policy and passionately arguing for the pro-life cause. Christie gave New Hampshire reason to doubt Rubio, but I'm not sure he convinced them to abandon him. Christie, by the way, has been falling in the polls. His brusque and dismissive manner in prosecuting the case against Rubio is unlikely to win back support.
If you liked Donald Trump going into this debate, the New York billionaire gave you no reason to change your mind. He was funny, over-the-top, and refrained from cursing. The question is whether the people who like Donald Trump will vote for him. Not all of them did in Iowa, where there was a late break away from the Donald and toward Ted Cruz and Rubio. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happened in New Hampshire. Then again, if Trump's support holds up and he wins as the polls predict, we're in for a wild night.
John Kasich and Jeb Bush both had good nights. Kasich has a one-state campaign, and a first or second place finish in New Hampshire would further complicate an already crazy Republican nomination fight. Bush once again demonstrated that he would make a serious, thoughtful, capable center-right chief executive. But do the voters want another Bush? It would be a major shock if New Hampshire voters said they do.
Two tickets out of New Hampshire, and possibly three if Kasich plays spoiler. (He may do well in New Hampshire but I would be surprised if he's the nominee.) Rubio needs to figure out a way to talk about his accomplishments, because his youth is clearly the major line of attack against him in both the primary and general election. Frontrunners take hits, what matters is how they handle the blows. Marco Rubio survived this bout. But there will be another.