BEDFORD, N.H. — Facing criticism for clinging to his talking points during the final GOP debate before Tuesday’s primary, Senator Marco Rubio refused to toss his script Sunday before hundreds of voters at New Hampshire town hall meetings.
“I said this last night, and I’m going to say it again. Barack Obama is trying to change America,” Rubio told a crowd in a packed town hall forum at McKelvie Intermediate School.
Rubio’s strong third-place finish in last week’s Iowa caucuses has made him a top target of his Republican rivals fighting to survive the New Hampshire primary. With businessman Donald Trump continuing to dominate polls, and Senator Ted Cruz winning Iowa, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio are grappling with Rubio for a foothold in a crowded GOP race.
When Christie attacked him during the debate for hiding behind talking points, Rubio repeated himself again nearly verbatim. By Sunday morning, hecklers from a Democratic super PAC were dressed in makeshift robot costumes outside Rubio’s Londonderry town hall meeting, and some New Hampshire residents were raising concerns about Rubio’s viability as a nominee.
“I think he’s exposing a weakness in Rubio,” Bedford Republican Nancy Brodeur said of Christie’s attacks during the debate. “I worry about Rubio. I think he could potentially be a Republican Obama, a senator with not a lot of experience.”
But some — including Brodeur’s husband, who was leaning toward Rubio before Saturday night’s performance — came away from his Sunday town hall reassured.
“I think he took a bruising,” Norm Brodeur said. “I was here today because of that. I wanted to see how he reacted.”
Two days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, the Republican candidates were pointed in their criticism of their rivals.
“Did Marco do well last night?” Trump asked a crowd packed into a gymnasium on the campus of Plymouth State University.
The crowd responded with a resounding: “Noooooo!”
Trump also went after Bush several times in his hour-long speech, at one point mocking him for using his 90-year-old mother to drive up support. Former first lady Barbara Bush walked in the snow to campaign for her son, Jeb Bush, last week. That was the same day Trump did not return to New Hampshire because of the winter weather.
“Poor, poor, poor Jeb Bush who brings out his mother because he needed help,” Trump said. “ ‘Mommy, please come — walk in the snow, Mom.’ I like his mother, though. You gotta do it on your own, OK? You gotta do it on your own.”
With many people still choosing between candidates in the crowded field, the campaigns’ New Hampshire events were flooded with curious voters Sunday.
“I can’t believe you’re all here,” Kasich told a crowd of more than 400 who packed inside Concord High School on Sunday afternoon. “It’s just little old me, folks.”
Kasich touted his performance as a job creator in Ohio and before that, as the congressman who balanced the federal budget.
“If you have common sense regulation and you manage the budget, you will have a robust economy with job growth,” Kasich said.
Jeffrey Phillips, 53, an independent voter from Concord, called Kasich “the most moderate and sensible,” and said he showed during Saturday night’s debate that “he could do the job” as president, Phillips said.
“I think he could maybe pull off second place,” he said of Kasich’s chances in New Hampshire. “I think there are a lot of people who are undecided and worried about Trump.”
In Peterborough, meanwhile, Cruz touched on many of his central themes — repealing the Affordable Care Act, abolishing the IRS, increasing border security, and preserving states’ rights — while taking frequent swipes at Democrats.
Cruz also referenced Saturday’s debate, in which Rubio, Bush, and Christie said they would support opening Selective Service registration to women. Cruz called that “immoral” and a nod to political correctness.
“Political correctness is dangerous, and the idea that we would draft our daughters to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close combat, I think is wrong,” he said.
Rubio, whose strong speaking skills helped vault him to prominence in his party, needed to recover ground after stumbling in Saturday’s debate.
“Let’s dispel once and for all this notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Rubio said during the debate at Saint Anselm College. “He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Moments later, when he repeated the line almost verbatim, Christie pounced: “There it is! The memorized 25-second speech! There it is, everybody!”
Rubio attracted overflow crowds to events that his campaign said had already been moved to larger venues.
“We couldn’t figure out how to make pancakes for 800 people,” Rubio told the jam-packed crowd in the Londonderry High School cafeteria. At each town hall meeting, he gave similar speeches, took several questions from the crowd, then stayed for pictures and autographs with individual voters, some of whom were giddy to see him.
Rather than retreating from his script, Rubio doubled down on it. In Londonderry, he argued that President Obama’s actions are not an accident resulting from his inexperience but intentional efforts to move the country in a different direction against its will.
“Everything that makes us special is in trouble,” Rubio said.
“This is a concerted, deliberate organized effort to change America,” said Rubio, who added that voters are “going to have to explain to our children why we got to grow up in the greatest country in the world and they did not.”
Kathy Elkherj of Manchester said she was upset with Christie over his attacks and that she hoped Rubio’s supporters would not be deterred by the debate.
“It didn’t change my mind,” she said.
But it had concerned her husband.
“I wasn’t too happy last night,” Nick Elkherj acknowledged. “I wish he was prepared.”
But he came away from Rubio’s event in Bedford sold, wearing a Rubio hat and toting campaign paraphernalia.
“I was almost there,” he said. “But I really wanted to hear him firsthand.”