Rubio seeks to reassure supporters as Republican rivals renew attacks
After the worst battering of his campaign, Sen. Marco Rubio worked Sunday to telegraph reassurance while rivals continued their pile-on and tried to shake up the Republican presidential contest in a state known for last-minute shifts of fortune.
Appearing on network television and at a packed town hall meeting in Londonderry, the Florida senator echoed the same lines that drew such derision Saturday night for their repeated, mechanical delivery in his widely panned debate performance.
“Last night it was, ‘Oh, you said the same thing three or four times,’” Rubio told supporters in a high school cafeteria. “I’m going to say it again: Barack Obama is the first president, at least in my lifetime, who wants to change the country. Not fix it. Not fix its problems. He wants to make it a different kind of country.”
Rubio said no more about his rocky debate performance, but his opponents on Sunday were eager to exploit what they hoped would be a pivot point in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rubio’s chief debate antagonist, bluntly asserted on CNN that his opponent “was unprepared to be president of the United States.” At his own town hall in Hampton later in the day, he added, “When the lights go on, I told you he wouldn’t be ready.”
During the debate, Christie mocked Rubio for repeating the same memorized 25-second sound bite about Obama knowing “exactly what he’s doing.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chimed in on “Fox News Sunday,” describing his onetime political protege “as totally scripted and kind of robotic” in the debate, which was the last chance for candidates to make their case to a wide audience before Tuesday’s balloting.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has run a generally positive campaign, notably declined to join the latest round of Rubio-bashing. He hopes to win over voters who say they are turned off by the increasingly mean-spirited tone of the Republican contest.
“Maybe there is change going on with the American electorate. Maybe they are fed up with negative, and they want to hear what you’re for,” Kasich told reporters before boarding his campaign bus in Nashua and motoring to another town hall — his 102nd of the campaign — in the state capital of Concord. “At least I’m hopeful that will be case.”
Rubio finished a surprisingly strong third in the Iowa caucuses last week. He’s been rising in the polls since. Bush and Christie, trailing far behind and facing elimination in New Hampshire, were both desperate to halt Rubio’s momentum, hoping to emerge as the alternative to insurgents Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
The reviews for Rubio on Sunday were scathing. The Boston Herald, which circulates widely in New Hampshire, published a front-page photo of a wide-eyed Rubio and the screaming headline “Choke!” By Sunday afternoon, a reproduction was circulating outside Rubio campaign events, presumably distributed by his critics.
Democrats, eager to diminish a candidate many fear in the general election, joined in the mischief. Outside Londonderry High School, a pair of operatives from American Bridge, a liberal political action committee, appeared wearing cardboard boxes made up to look like automatons. One of them bore the words “Marco Roboto.”
It was difficult to gauge the effect of the debate just two days before the primary. A sizable chunk of the expected Republican electorate remains undecided, and the state has a history of surprising poll takers and other prognosticators with last-minute shifts in sentiment. But there was no doubting it was the main topic of discussion as New Hampshire Republicans — and plenty of political tourists from neighboring states — jammed community centers, school cafeterias, restaurants and veterans’ halls to hear the candidates make their arguments.
Supporters who gathered for coffee and doughnuts ahead of Rubio’s Londonderry stop insisted he was unfairly attacked. But wavering voters who had been leaning toward the Florida senator were clearly left uneasy by his performance.
“It created some doubt,” said Phil Geiger, a Londonderry Republican in his mid-50s.
Dianne Martel, a 62-year-old Republican from Bedford looking to support a candidate who can rally the party establishment against Trump and Cruz, had been prepared to vote for Rubio. But she was having second thoughts after watching the debate.
“I had narrowed it down to Rubio because he was surging in the polls,” she said. “After last night, I’m not sure. He froze up and kept repeating his canned answer.” Now Martel says she is thinking she might vote for Bush.
If Rubio’s confidence has been shaken, he didn’t let it show.
“It’s what I’m going to continue to say, because it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” referring to his oft-repeated denunciation of Obama. “Actually, I would pay them to keep running that clip because that’s what I believe passionately.”
Barabak reported from Nashua and Halper from Londonderry, N.H.
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