A new state brought a new target as Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio was repeatedly thrown on the defensive Saturday night in an often-testy debate filled with needling exchanges over leadership and which candidate has the achievements and integrity to step into the White House.
Rubio, a freshman Florida senator who has been climbing in polls after an unexpectedly strong third-place finish in Iowa, faced rough going from the start when he was asked about what rivals said was a thin Washington resume.
Among his accomplishments, Rubio cited work for his constituents and support for legislation sanctioning terrorist groups, drawing a withering response from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"You weren't even there to vote for it," Christie snapped. "That's not leadership. That's truancy."
The rejoinder and its whiff of condescension toward the 44-year-old senator — the youngest of the seven candidates on stage — demonstrated how much the race has changed since the Iowa caucuses Monday night and how the issue of experience has moved to the fore as some of the GOP's most seasoned figures have been surpassed by the suddenly rising star.
Three of them — Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — have virtually staked their campaigns on strong showings in Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary.
The evening made for the harshest assault Rubio has faced after shining in several earlier debates, and his anxiety often showed. He glistened with sweat and stumbled through some of his answers, often falling back on rote responses that Christie mocked.
The New Jersey governor, who has been sinking in recent polls, has taunted Rubio as an overly scripted "boy in a bubble." When the senator fell back on familiar phrases Saturday night, Christie pounced.
"That's what Washington, D.C., does," Christie said with a sneer. "The drive-by shot at the beginning, with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisors gave him."
"Chris, your state got hit by a massive snowstorm two weeks ago," Rubio retorted. "You didn't even want to go back. They had to shame you into going back. And then you stayed there for 36 hours, and then he left and came back to campaign."
After jeers from the audience faded, Rubio renewed a line of attack against President Obama and Christie again interrupted. "There it is, the memorized 25-second speech," he scoffed.
Bush, Rubio's onetime mentor, soon chimed in.
"Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician," said Bush, another of the Iowa also-rans effectively making his last stand in New Hampshire. He went on to compare Rubio to Obama, saying both were polished speakers with little preparation for the White House.
"We've tried it the old way with Barack Obama with soaring eloquence, and we didn't get a leader," Bush said. "We got someone who divided the country up."
The Iowa results also boosted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another freshman lawmaker, who came in first there and took some of the gloss off national front-runner Donald Trump, who barely finished second.
Trump had a much easier time Saturday night than Rubio. After skipping the last GOP debate in a spat with the host, Fox News, the billionaire businessman reasserted himself with his trademark superlatives and bombast.
He and Bush traded barbs after the ex-governor accused him of using his clout to force an elderly woman from her Atlantic City, N.J., home to build a casino parking lot. "That is downright wrong," Bush said.
"I didn't take the property," Trump snapped, mocking Bush for trying to be "a tough guy."
"You tried," Bush shot back. "How tough is it to take property from an elderly woman?"
"Let me talk — quiet," Trump told Bush, putting a finger to his lips. The crowd groaned.
"That's all of his donors and special interests," Trump said, triggering more groans, which grew as he asserted the GOP had salted the crowd with campaign contributors.
The debate, nationally broadcast on ABC from the campus of St. Anselm College, was the eighth of the Republican contests and the last chance for candidates to make their pitch to a wide audience before Tuesday's primary.
Much of the two-hour session covered familiar topics, including immigration.
Kasich said he would beef up border security and backed a path to legalization — but not citizenship — for immigrants in the country illegally.
"I couldn't even imagine how we would even begin to think about taking a mom or dad out of a house, when they have not committed a crime since they've been here," Kasich said. "That is not, in my opinion, the kind of values we believe in."
Cruz, who has called for deporting the estimated 11.5 million people in the country illegally, was asked how he would do so. "What you do is you enforce the law," he replied.
Rubio was asked about legislation that he supported and later backed away from that would have provided a pathway to citizenship. He said there wasn't enough backing for the bill and border security must come first, leading Christie to again attack, accusing Rubio of failing the test of leadership.
"It is not leadership to continue to try something that has no chance of happening," Rubio replied.
The candidates took turns accusing the Obama administration of failing to take enough action against Islamic terrorists, but differed on whether to waterboard terrorism suspects.
"I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use," Cruz said. He went on to pledge to use "whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe."
Trump said he supported waterboarding and "would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."
The candidates were also asked how they would deal with the news that North Korea was testing a long-range missile system that could ultimately reach the U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
Cruz demurred when asked whether he would launch a preemptive military strike, saying he could not answer without seeing the intelligence.
Trump said he would pressure the Chinese to solve the problem. "They have total, absolute control practically of North Korea," he said. "I would get on [the phone] with China — let China solve that problem."
Bush took the most aggressive stance, saying, "if a preemptive strike is necessary to keep us safe, then we should do it."
The Iowa results, apart from shaking up the race, also gave the candidates something new to quarrel over.
Just before the voting began, the Cruz campaign spread a false report that Ben Carson, who was vying for the same conservative Christian support as Cruz, was quitting the race. Cruz later apologized to Carson, and Saturday night he apologized again.
"Ben is a good and honorable man.... He has an amazing life story that has inspired millions, including me," Cruz said. "When this transpired, I apologized to him then and I do so now."
Cruz said his campaign had merely relayed a report from CNN that Carson was going home after the Iowa caucuses, rather than straight to New Hampshire.
Carson said he was disappointed in the tactic.
"Unfortunately, it did happen. It gives us a very good example of certain types of Washington ethics," he said. "Washington ethics basically say, if it's legal, you do what you need to do in order to win. That's not my ethics."
Turning to an issue of acute local concern, the candidates were asked about the heroin epidemic ravaging New England.
Cruz talked about a half-sister who died of an overdose. He then tied the issue back to border security, citing Mexicans "smuggling vast amounts of heroin into this country."
Christie touted his record in New Jersey, saying he'd been able to divert addicts into treatment instead of prison. "It is a disease," he said. "We need to give people the treatment they need."
Twitter: @markzbarabak, @finneganLAT
Times staff writers Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles and Chris Megerian in Manchester contributed to this report.
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