Politics

For Marco Rubio, what a difference a week makes

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Senator Marco Rubio appeared to be heading for a distant fifth-place finish Tuesday in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary, a stinging disappointment for a candidate who brimmed with momentum after his strong finish in Iowa.

Rubio had increasingly pitched himself as the most electable member of the splintered GOP field, but the Florida senator stumbled badly in a debate Saturday after a withering attack from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Since the missteps, Rubio had tamped down expectations for his performance in New Hampshire and alluded to a long grind ahead for delegates en route to the Republican National Convention in July.

“I’m disappointed,” Rubio told supporters at his primary night rally. “It’s on me. I [did] not do well on Saturday night, so listen to this: That will never happen again.”

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Rubio added, “We will win this election. Because if we do not win this election, we may lose our country.”

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The listless mood at Rubio’s primary night rally at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester struck Jim Dunham, who agonized over his vote before settling on the senator.

“I thought he would actually eke out third place, but the debate Saturday hurt him,” said Dunham, a 52-year-old Nashua resident who owns a software company. “But I think he’ll recover.”

In his final New Hampshire push in the aftermath of the debate, Rubio made no predictions of victory and instead talked about the ongoing battle for delegates. The winner in New Hampshire’s Republican primary, businessman Donald Trump, had led in New Hampshire polls since summer, Rubio noted in the waning days. Some candidates had campaigned exclusively in the state, he said.

What mattered, Rubio said as voters flocked to the polls, was garnering a share of delegates that could prove critical as the race moves forward.

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“In a race like this with so many people running, delegates are going to be really relevant,” Rubio told WMUR-TV in an interview outside a polling place at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry. “We’re going to leave here with more delegates than we came in [with] and then go into South Carolina and continue to build.”

That marked a significant change in tone since Rubio’s third-place finish in Iowa. For a week, the Florida senator captured national attention as the candidate who could unite a Republican Party splintered by anger and ideology.

But as Rubio surged in some polls, he faced withering criticism in a debate Saturday that pundits described as the worst night of his campaign. Christie mocked Rubio for repeating what the New Jersey governor derided as a “25-second memorized speech.”

Marco Rubio embraced his family following his address to supporters following the N.H. Primary.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Marco Rubio embraced his family following his address to supporters following the N.H. Primary.

His debate performance continued to haunt Rubio Tuesday. A man wearing a crudely designed robot costume — a Rubio-Bot — greeted the candidate at a Manchester polling place, mocking the senator with quips such as “I only know talking points.”

Still, enthusiasm remained high among Rubio’s supporters, who passed out hand warmers to stave off freezing temperatures as they clutched signs.

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Outside the polling place at Windham High School, Rubio arrived to a raucous reception from several dozen volunteers performing a call-and-answer chant, with a few yelling “Marco” and the others answering “Rubio.” A handful of Trump volunteers tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the Rubio chant by yelling “We want Trump.”

With his two sons in tow, Rubio drew a crush of photographers and reporters so large it clogged the sidewalk leading to the school. One voter complained directly to the senator, saying the crowd was forcing him to walk into the snow and he did not like the chants of Rubio volunteers.

“We don’t like that in New Hampshire,” the man told Rubio. “I changed my vote.”

Rubio apologized to the man and continued to thank his volunteers, signing autographs and posing for photos.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.