MANCHESTER, N.H. — Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was hammered as callow, ambitious and lacking in accomplishment during the Republican presidential debate here on Saturday night, as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey led an all-out assault to try to halt Mr. Rubio’s growing momentum ahead of the critical New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
Mr. Rubio, facing the fiercest attacks yet of the Republican race after his strong third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, looked rattled at times and faltered as he pushed back with scripted lines about President Obama that Mr. Christie mocked mercilessly. While the Republicans clashed on issues like abortion and torture, the concerted effort to take down Mr. Rubio dominated the debate.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Donald J. Trump also pounced on Mr. Rubio, whose rising popularity in New Hampshire poses a grave threat to their candidacies. But it was Mr. Christie who was the most pointed and personal in his derision of Mr. Rubio — a strategy that may not ultimately bring him votes, but could wound Mr. Rubio just as he has been ascending.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable — you just simply haven’t,” Mr. Christie told Mr. Rubio early in the debate. Charging Mr. Rubio with taking credit for policies but then skipping Senate votes on them, he said, “That’s not leadership. That’s truancy.”
The scorn aimed at Mr. Rubio, a 44-year-old first-term senator, came as voters in New Hampshire and nationwide are still taking the measure of him, though he is well positioned to surge nationally if he has a strong showing in the primary here. Still, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll last week indicated there was still fluidity in the New Hampshire electorate: 33 percent of Republican primary voters here said they might change their minds before Tuesday.
The intensity of the debate reflected the stakes, as several candidates face possible elimination if they fail to finish strongly here. Mr. Christie, who had just $1 million left for his campaign at the start of the year, is almost certain to exit the race if he does not outperform his establishment-aligned rivals. Mr. Bush and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio are facing nearly as much pressure to demonstrate that they can appeal to voters after being overshadowed by more conservative candidates. And Mr. Trump, after sustaining a surprise loss in Iowa in part because of his lackluster organization, needs to prove he can turn out his supporters and win in a state he has dominated for months.
Mr. Christie was pugnacious from his first statement, while Mr. Bush mixed ridicule — mostly aimed at Mr. Rubio — with sobering lectures, fighting about his policy ideas on missile defense and eminent domain. Mr. Kasich struck a more positive and pragmatic tone as he sought to reach moderate voters, saying his record of job growth in Ohio was a template for the nation.
Mr. Rubio seemed most unsettled when, during the early exchange with Mr. Christie, he attempted to pivot to attacking Mr. Obama for “trying to change this country” and leading the nation to “disaster.” Mr. Christie pounced, suggesting that Mr. Rubio was simply reciting rehearsed sound bites.
Taking a lecturing tone with Mr. Rubio, Mr. Christie said, “See Marco — Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech when you talk about how great America is at the end of it — it doesn’t solve one problem for one person.”
When Mr. Rubio responded with a line he had used earlier, Mr. Christie looked at the camera with seeming exasperation: “There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
Mr. Bush appeared almost itchy to pile onto Mr. Rubio, at one point saying to Mr. Christie, “Chris, why don’t you mention my name so I can get into this,” and then mocked Mr. Rubio for inexperience.
Mr. Christie’s blistering attack may have rocked Mr. Rubio, but it is not clear that it will also lift Mr. Christie. The New Jersey governor, after rising in New Hampshire polls at the end of last year, has fallen here after facing an onslaught from a “super PAC” supporting Mr. Rubio. Often when one candidate attacks another in a crowded field, a third candidate benefits.
The alliance among the three governors, who have become frustrated as Mr. Rubio has captured the imagination of donors, voters and the news media, was striking during the lengthy debate, which was sponsored by ABC News and Independent Journal Review. Not only did they team up on Mr. Rubio, they avoided harsh attacks on one another.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie found common cause in warning moderate New Hampshire voters and victory-minded Republicans across the country that Mr. Rubio’s opposition to abortion in the cases of rape and incest would imperil his prospects as the party’s nominee.
“This is not a woman’s choice; this is a woman being violated,” Mr. Christie said about victims of rape and incest.
Mr. Rubio did not back down, appealing to his party’s conservatives by stating, “I would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life.”
Mr. Trump, who skipped the last debate in Iowa and may have paid a price with voters there, struggled to re-establish himself as a force to be reckoned with on Saturday night. After several debates where Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz were the most aggressive candidates, they appeared to be protecting their political advantages as they look to build on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary for a protracted fight for the nomination. At one point, however, during an exchange with Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump took aim at the audience — a risk so soon before the state’s primary.
“He wants to be a tough guy, and it doesn’t work very well,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Bush. As Mr. Bush sought to interrupt him, Mr. Trump told him dismissively, “Quiet,” setting off booing in the audience. Mr. Trump denounced those booing as “all of his donors and special interests,” drawing more jeers. “The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Cruz, who came in first in the Iowa caucuses, was a low-key presence on Saturday as he sought to have a respectable finish in New Hampshire and move on to more fertile ground in South Carolina. Mr. Cruz ducked when asked if he stood by his earlier criticism of Mr. Trump’s temperament and his assertion that Mr. Trump might use nuclear weapons, even against a friendly country like Denmark. Instead Mr. Cruz simply said that voters would assess who was “levelheaded” and had “judgment.”
The candidates parted ways when they were asked about torture and specifically the practice of waterboarding suspected enemies. Mr. Trump boasted that he would he gladly revive banned interrogation techniques. “I would bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he said.
Mr. Bush said he would not revive the practice, but argued for expanding intelligence gathering. Mr. Cruz sought to find a middle way, leaving open the possibility that he would engage in what is seen as torture. “I would not bring it back in any widespread use,” he said of waterboarding.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has largely faded as a candidate in recent weeks, deftly cut down Mr. Cruz for incorrectly spreading a message that Mr. Carson had dropped out right before the Iowa caucuses.
Mr. Cruz, who was concerned about Mr. Carson making inroads with evangelicals in Iowa, apologized and recalled that he had done so the day after the caucuses. But he did not take full responsibility, faulting CNN for reporting that Mr. Carson was “taking a break” from the campaign. (It turned out that Mr. Carson was only returning home to Florida for a change of clothes.)
The scornful tone throughout the debate even crept into the candidates’ closing statements, which are usually optimistic. Mr. Trump, who made the final closing statement, could not resist besmirching Mr. Cruz’s victory.
“That’s because he got Ben Carson’s votes, by the way,” Mr. Trump said, “but we won’t say that.”(nytimes.com)