After working all week to build on their momentum coming out of the Iowa caucuses, it took only about 30 minutes on stage for Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas to squander their gains.
Rubio sailed into the GOP debate after a better-than-expected third place finish in Iowa, but almost immediately ran headlong into attacks by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who criticized Rubio for resorting to “memorized 30-second speeches.”
Inexplicably and embarrassingly, Rubio retreated again and again to a talking point about President Obama knowing “exactly what he’s doing” by deliberately trying to weaken the country with his policies. Whether it was a brain freeze or a failed strategy to control his message, he played right into Christie’s attack line.
He looked weak and ill-prepared. He got booed. But most importantly, he lost his momentum from Iowa and gave voters a reason to take a second look at a tough-talking Christie heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. If Rubio still intends to do well in the Granite State, he has a lot of damage to repair in a short amount of time.
Cruz, winner of the Iowa caucuses, also ran into trouble. He needed to show voters that his win was not a fluke and that he has what it takes to be president. But when asked to answer for his campaign’s false statements about Ben Carson suspending his campaign during the Iowa caucuses, Cruz came across as slippery and untrustworthy. When a moderator teed up a question about how, as president, Cruz would react to the missile launched by North Korea Saturday evening, he was noncommittal and hesitant.
Not everyone stumbled. Donald Trump was back and performed well overall, doing a better job than his rivals at one point describing what it means to be a conservative. He likely solidified his lead in New Hampshire and fended off the candidates nipping at his heels coming out of Iowa.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush finally seemed to find his groove, even standing up assertively to Trump on the issue of eminent domain. But after months of losing his presumptive status of front-runner in the race and after an abysmal showing in Iowa, it may be too little, too late.
Cruz and Rubio’s underperformance could have worked to the benefit of a candidate like Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who remains in a tie for third place in the RealClearPolitics average of latest polls in New Hampshire. However, Kasich did little to advance his cause while on the stage Saturday night. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina, another candidate who could have benefited from a strong showing, didn’t even have a chance because she was blocked from participating because of ABC’s debate criteria.
After the Iowa caucuses scrambled the Republican field with unexpected strength from Cruz and Rubio, there was a lot of pressure on stage to present a clearer picture for voters. But it didn’t end up delivering much clarity. Heading into the first-in-the-nation primary, Republicans are still waiting for someone to definitively make their case. Granite Staters have a tough decision ahead of them on Tuesday.