After a surprisingly strong third-place showing in last week’s
Iowa caucuses, Rubio came into New Hampshire hoping for a top-tier
finish in the state to buttress his argument he is the candidate
around whom the party establishment should rally.
But a debate performance on Saturday night that was widely mocked by
Republicans and Democrats as well as legions on social media might
have changed the equation for the U.S. senator from Florida.
Now Rubio must worry that anything less than a robust performance in
New Hampshire will further fuel the suggestion that his campaign
suffered a critical blow at the debate.
Dante Scala, an analyst on local politics at the University of New
Hampshire, said that if Rubio did not do well in Tuesday's primary,
“it isn’t fatal necessarily, but it makes the road to the nomination
longer and riskier.”
Billionaire businessman Donald Trump is widely expected to win
Tuesday’s contest in New Hampshire, whose primary is part of the
state-by-state process of picking party nominees for the Nov. 8
election to replace Democratic President Barack Obama.
But after Rubio finished far ahead of mainstream rivals Jeb Bush,
Chris Christie and John Kasich in Iowa, he appeared to be best
positioned to place second in New Hampshire, perhaps knocking
Christie or Kasich out of the race and emerging as the party’s best
hope to derail Trump’s insurgent bid.
Rubio’s debate showing, in which he helped further the perception he
is an overly scripted, even robotic, candidate, has been cited by
other contenders as proof he is not ready to shoulder the leadership
“When the lights get that bright, you either shine or you melt,”
Christie, the New Jersey governor, said at a campaign event in
Hudson, New Hampshire, on Monday. “We can't afford to have a
president who melts.”
BATTLE FOR SECOND PLACE
Rubio, in an interview with CNN on Monday, dismissed the torrent of
criticism that has come his way since the debate and said his
potential to be a strong general election candidate against the
Democrats made him a target.
“We raised more money after this debate than any debate we've ever
had and we're excited about it,” Rubio said. “And there's a reason
they attacked me more than anyone else."
A WMUR-CNN poll released on Monday showed Trump leading in New
Hampshire with the support of 31 percent of those planning to vote
in the Republican primary. Rubio was in second place at 17 percent,
followed by Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, at 14 percent.
Kasich, the Ohio governor, had 10 percent, Bush, a former Florida
governor, was at 7 percent, and Christie at 4 percent, according to
the poll conducted from Wednesday to Sunday, with a margin of error
of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points.
The New Hampshire race promises to be dramatic on the Democratic
side as well.
Bernie Sanders has a strong lead in state opinion polls over former
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who narrowly beat him in Iowa.
[to top of second column]
Clinton has sought to play down expectations for her performance in
New Hampshire, noting that Sanders is a U.S. senator from
neighboring Vermont. But a big loss in New Hampshire to Sanders, an
underdog candidate and self-described socialist, would be an
embarrassment for Clinton.
FIGHTING FOR TRACTION
Among Republicans, Christie has become Rubio’s chief antagonist and
hopes to benefit from any loss of Rubio’s momentum. A finish below
the top three could force Christie's exit from the race.
Kasich, who has been rising in the polls in New Hampshire, is
another candidate seeking to profit from Rubio’s troubles. He has
long staked the viability of his campaign on the outcome in New
Hampshire, and he has a deep organization in the state, with 800
volunteers manning phone banks and going door to door to court
He is counting on attracting independents who can vote in the
Republican primary. At an event in Windham, New Hampshire, on
Monday, one undecided voter told Kasich she was trying to decide
whether to support him or Democrats Clinton and Sanders.
A Rubio stumble might also be a huge boon to Bush, the son and
brother of former presidents, who has had to endure calls from party
elites that he drop out of the race rather than keep competing with
Rubio’s organization on the ground in New Hampshire is not as
extensive as Kasich’s or those of some other mainstream candidates.
His strategy has long been to leverage his telegenic presence on
cable news channels to build support.
His third-place Iowa finish seemed to validate that decision. But it
has also left him more vulnerable to mood swings among the New
There remains the possibility that Rubio will silence the doubters
on Tuesday, demonstrating that his debate mishap meant little to
Cruz was considered to have turned in a poor showing at a debate
before the Iowa caucuses. Three days later, he won them.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.