GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Marco Rubio, newly ascendant in recent polls, came under battering criticism Saturday night from rivals in the final Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary, undercutting the usual smooth performance that has helped him leap into the top tier.
A once-dominant Donald Trump, who was back on stage after skipping the previous debate, engaged in a sharp exchange with Jeb Bush and was booed repeatedly after he launched a bizarre and risky attack on the audience in the debate hall.
Trump also pledged to bring back “something a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” for the questioning of terrorism suspects. He was not asked to explain what that might be.
And so the verbal battle roared on, furious and unremitting, from the first minute of the two-plus-hour debate to the last.
The debate, sponsored by ABC News and held at Saint Anselm College, was the last before the vote, and the stakes were exceedingly high because large numbers of Republican voters are undecided or open to last-minute switching.
Rubio was the prime target in the raucous debate as his rivals tried to curb his recent surge and prevent him from becoming the chief alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz, who won Iowa. They called the freshman Florida senator inexperienced, calculating, and unable to move beyond his well-worn talking points.
“Marco, you have not been involved in a consequential decision where you have to be held accountable,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, leading the charge. He slammed Rubio for missing a vote on Hezbollah sanctions.
“That’s not leadership; that’s truancy,” he said.
Rubio, in turn, mocked Christie, even as he stressed the burdens of executive office, for not returning to his home state to lead when a major winter storm hit recently.
As Christie criticized Rubio for his scripted campaign, Rubio seemed to fall into a trap — giving the same answer, nearly word for word — to two questions asked within minutes. “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” he said.
“The memorized 25-second speech doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” Christie interjected.
“There it is! The memorized 25-second speech!” Christie yelled at one juncture. “There it is, everybody.”
Jeb Bush seemed to gain strength by attacking Trump with more gusto about whether government and businesses should be allowed to seize property by eminent domain. After Trump defended the practice as a necessary way to build roads and bridges, Bush — the only candidate to forcefully criticize Trump — raised Trump’s attempt to seize a home next to one of his Atlantic City casinos.
“What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property from an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City,” Bush said. “That’s not public purpose. That’s downright wrong . . . To turn this into a limousine parking lot for his casinos is not a public use.”
“He wants to be a tough guy. And it doesn’t work,” Trump responded. As Bush interjected, Trump brought his finger to his mouth and said, “Quiet.”
The crowd began to boo.
“That’s all of his donors and special interests,” Trump said, gesturing to the audience and criticizing the RNC for distributing tickets to the debate to top party donors.
“The RNC told us we have all donors in the audience,” he added. “The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money. I don’t want their money; I don’t need their money.”
The debate got off to a discordant start, with some candidates not walking out when they were introduced and others standing awkwardly in the wings, with a brief pileup of Trump, Ben Carson, and Bush. It was a fitting beginning to the debate for a campaign that has been marked by uncertainty and chaos.
It marked a return to center stage for Trump, who boycotted the debate last week in Iowa amid a conflict with Fox News — a decision that he later said might have contributed to his Iowa loss to Cruz. Trump’s rivals have mocked his commitment to New Hampshire and his unwillingness to engage in some of the more intimate campaign events that voters often expect.
Cruz and Trump have been in a vicious battle, but Rubio won a surprisingly strong third-place finish in Iowa, and he’s used it to maximum effect, declaring victory as if he came in first.
Several recent polls have shown Rubio gaining new ground, surging to second place. If his surge continues, he could even threaten Trump, who has held a dominant lead since entering the race last summer.
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released Friday had Trump at 29 percent, followed by Rubio at 19 percent. Ohio Governor John Kasich was at 13 percent, with Jeb Bush at 10 percent and all other candidates in single digits.
But the first-in-the-nation primary remains extraordinarily volatile, with independent voters staying undecided until the last minute — not only over which candidate to support but which party’s primary to participate in. The Globe poll found that 42 percent of likely GOP primary voters were either undecided or said they could still change their mind.
Rubio’s momentum has triggered renewed attacks from a trio of governors who have banked the future of their campaigns on a strong Granite State result.
Rubio struggled when questions turned to his decision in 2013 to work on a comprehensive immigration reform overhaul. Working with the so-called Gang of Eight, with four Democrats and four Republicans, Rubio pushed for an immigration plan that is now out of step with the GOP electorate. He later backed away from it and never pushed for the bill to be taken up in the House.
“Here’s the bottom line: We can’t get that legislation passed,” Rubio said, even though the legislation did pass the Senate. He then clarified, saying, “The legislation passed but it has no support.”
Christie again interjected.
“It’s abundantly clear that he didn’t fight for the legislation,” he said.
The candidates focused at length on foreign policy, especially North Korea and the Islamic State. Several offered their views on enhanced interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which Congress has banned and many people consider torture.
“I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use,” said Cruz, who said in some limited cases he would authorize the technique.
Trump advocated a return to the practice, contending that atrocities committed by the Islamic State merit a strong response. “Not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on,” Trump said. “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
Cruz is not expected to do well in New Hampshire, even though he won Iowa, because the vote here is driven far more by social moderates than by religious conservatives.
Kasich has generally eschewed attacking his rivals, attempting to cast himself as a sunnier candidate. “Head out tomorrow and buy a seat belt because so much will happen in my first 100 days, it’ll make your head spin,” Kasich said.
Ben Carson entered the debate wounded after a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa, but also amid controversy over the Cruz campaign’s last-minute tactics. Carson accused Cruz of spreading rumors that he was dropping out of the race just as Iowans were heading to their caucus sites.
In audio distributed by the Carson campaign Thursday, Cruz supporters are heard leaving messages saying “Hello, this is the Cruz campaign with breaking news: Dr. Ben Carson will be suspending campaigning following tonight’s caucuses.”
Carson on Saturday night referenced Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” not to criticize fellow Republicans but said he was troubled by the Cruz campaign’s actions.
“Washington ethics basically says if it’s legal, you do what you have to do to win,” he said. “That’s not right. My ethics is you do what’s right.”
Cruz responded by calling Carson “a good and honorable man.”
“When this transpired, I apologized to him then, and I do so now,” Cruz said. “Ben, I’m sorry.”
Carson faded for much of the remainder of the debate, interjecting at one point, “I’m not here just to add beauty to the stage.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article did not make clear that a poll released Friday was conducted by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe.