Marco Rubio stumbled in a high stakes GOP debate Saturday just days before a critical New Hampshire primary, as Chris Christie and Jeb Bush aggressively ramped up attacks on his Senate record and accomplishments.
Rubio’s less than sure-footed handling of the criticism - resorting repeatedly to the same talking point - could impact his quick rise in polls in New Hampshire. At the same time, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas found his ethics indirectly challenged by Ben Carson for controversial campaign tactics that rivals described as dirty tricks. Depending on how New Hampshire reacts, that also could impact his support in the Granite State.
The faceoff among seven men - Carly Fiorina did not make the cut by host ABC’s criteria - came in a state known for changing its mind in the closing days of primary campaigns.
The governors were particularly aggressive against Rubio, a recognition that New Hampshire might be the last chance for one of them to challenge him as the dominant establishment alternative to Donald Trump and Cruz.
Rubio proved to be the biggest target onstage, facing heated criticism, particularly from a dominant Christie. Christie was combative from the start, ripping Rubio’s record in the Senate and accusing him of turning his back on his immigration proposal. Bush also challenged Rubio’s lack of experience, likening him to Barack Obama, who went from a first term in the Senate to the White House. Rubio appeared rattled at times, as Christie ridiculed the senator for resorting to a “25-second speech” that his advisers gave him.
The holdout was Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who has been rising in New Hampshire by focusing on a more upbeat message drilled home in a hundred town hall meetings in the state.
Trump, who leads in New Hampshire polls, appeared more restrained than in past debates, seeking to reassure voters after he finished a surprising second in Iowa.
Cruz, Carson and Iowa
Carson was asked to respond to the fact that Cruz’s campaign had misled Iowa voters unto thinking that Carson was dropping out and they should therefore support Cruz.
“I was very disappointed that members of his team thought so little of me that they thought after having hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers and college students who sacrificed their time and were dedicated to the cause – one even died – to think that I would just walk away 10 minutes before the caucus and say, ‘Forget you guys,’ ” Carson said.
“Who would do something like that?” Carson said. “I don’t think anyone on the stage would do something like that.”
In one of his most forceful moments in the debates so far, the soft-spoken Carson called the incident “a very good example of certain types of Washington ethics. Washington ethics basically says, ‘If it’s legal, you do what you need to do to win.’ ”
Cruz blamed the incident on a CNN report that Carson was “talking a break from campaigning.” CNN, in a statement Saturday night, said, “What Sen. Cruz said tonight in the debate is categorically false”
“The Cruz campaign’s actions the night of the Iowa caucuses had nothing to do with CNN’s reporting. The fact that Sen. Cruz continues to knowingly mislead the voters about this is astonishing,” the statement said.
Cruz called Carson a “good an honorable man” Saturday night, repeating his apology for the Iowa incident.
Target: Marco Rubio
Rubio’s surge in the polls made him a top target, with rivals savaging his campaign as overly scripted and his Senate record as thin. They looked to repeatedly liken him to Obama – also a first-term senator turned president.
Rubio sought to defend his single term in the Senate, saying he was proud of protecting people from eminent-domain abuse and helping to pass sanctions against terrorist groups.
And he charged that if politics were about electing the longest-serving politicians, Vice President Joe Biden would be president: “He’s been around 1,000 years, and I don’t believe any of us believe that Joe Biden should be president.”
He sought to turn the conversation back to Obama, a move that earned a sharp rebuke from Christie, who charged that Rubio had never been involved “in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable.”
He charged that Rubio had even missed the vote on a bill financing the fight against terrorism.
“That’s not leadership, that’s truancy,” Christie said, adding that Rubio “simply does not have the experience to be president.”
Rubio leveled a jab at Christie, accusing him of poorly governing his state, but he turned again to an Obama critique.
“That’s what D.C. does,” Christie retorted. “The drive-by shot at the beginning, then the memorized 25-second speech at the end.”
Bush jumped in. “Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician . . . but we tried it the old way with soaring eloquence,” he said, comparing Rubio to Obama.
Earlier in the day, Bush’s campaign released new Web ads in New Hampshire featuring clips of former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., being unable to list any accomplishments by Rubio in the Senate. Santorum endorsed Rubio shortly after he abandoned his own presidential bid following the Iowa caucuses.
Bush and Trump engaged in a heated debate over eminent domain, the process in which the government seizes private property for public use or projects.
Bush accused Trump of trying to use eminent domain to take property from an elderly woman, Vera Coking, in Atlantic City, N.J., for one of his casinos in the 1990s. “And the simple fact is to turn this into a limousine parking lot for his casinos is a not public use,” Bush said.
Trump aggressively defended the general use of eminent domain – controversial to many conservatives. “Without it, you wouldn’t have roads, you wouldn’t have hospitals, you wouldn’t have anything,” Trump said.
“All the big conservatives who tell me how conservative they are . . . they all want the Keystone pipeline,” he said. “The Keystone pipeline without eminent domain wouldn’t go 10 feet, OK? You need eminent domain. And eminent domain is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
“People back down with Trump.” Donald Trump, after Ted Cruz didn’t answer a question about him.
“If politics becomes and the presidency becomes about electing people who have been in Congress or in the Senate the longest, we should all rally around Joe Biden. He’s been around 1,000 years.” Marco Rubio.
“Washington ethics basically says, if it’s legal, you do what you need to do in order to win. That’s not my ethics. My ethics is, you do what’s right.” Ben Carson on Cruz campaign tactics.
This version adds contributor line
Maria Recio contributed