LONDONDERRY, N.H. — On the cusp of a perplexing Republican primary, the political curse hanging over Marco Rubio is that his greatest strength — the ability to deliver a stump speech with emotion and conviction — has become a crippling liability.
In Saturday night’s GOP debate, a suddenly ascendant Chris Christie hammered Rubio over his addiction to the “memorized 25-second speech.” Rubio’s baffling response was to return four times in the debate to the same scripted line about President Barack Obama’s left-wing agenda.
Presidential debates rarely matter as much as over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived reporters think they do. But there are exceptions, as Rick Perry and Dan Quayle can testify. The Boston Herald, in a reminder of why God invented tabloids, put Rubio on the cover of its Sunday paper with the devastating one-word debate summation: “CHOKE!”
In the rinse-and-spin cycle after the debate, Team Rubio tried to put the best face possible on the Florida senator’s momentum-killing performance.
“What Governor Christie was trying to do was to take Marco down,” said senior adviser Todd Harris. “He took his best shot and failed.”
That overly charitable interpretation did not appear to be shared by many New Hampshire voters still shopping for a candidate in the final 48 hours before the first primary. Even as an impressive crowd of 800 voters and curiosity-seekers shoehorned themselves into a school cafeteria in Londonderry for Rubio’s first appearance Sunday morning, you could hear echoes of the debate everywhere.
Mark Almquist, an airline pilot who lives in Londonderry, said he had been undecided but tilting towards Rubio in his quest for a candidate who could beat Hillary Clinton. But the debate gave Almquist pause as he went back to seriously considering Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
“With Christie, Marco did get a little flustered,” Almquist said as he waited for the late-arriving Rubio. “In politics, you need to be able to think on your feet.”
When Rubio arrived, he launched into, yes, his well-honed stump speech, making only a few small cosmetic alterations in the script that had vaulted the freshman Florida senator to third place in Iowa.
His only acknowledgement of his time of troubles was a brief nod to the virtues of repetition: “It’s interesting that after last night people are [saying], ‘Oh, you said the same thing three or four times.’ I’m going to say it again.” Rubio then launched into his well-traveled critique of the president.
It is perhaps telling that Rubio’s line of defense was almost word-for-word identical to what he had earlier said in a Sunday morning interview on “ABC’s This Week.”
After the Londonderry speech, a middle-aged candidate shopper named Jim (his governmental work abroad made him skittish about providing his last name) said Rubio had failed to close the deal. Troubled by Rubio’s sputtering debate performance, Jim had brought his 11-year-old daughter along for an in-person look. No dice. “It was all generalities,” Jim complained. “There’s no substance.”
It is Rubio’s fate to be seeking the presidency in a year when voters appear to crave authenticity, even in its wildest forms like the vulgar and simplistic Donald Trump. The stump speech — burnished to a shine like a standup comic’s monologue — has suddenly become regarded as an artifact of 20th century politics.
All candidates repeat themselves endlessly. (You try talking in public for three hours every day with always fresh material). But a Bernie Sanders with his hair flying in all directions can make familiar lines about a “rigged system” seem fresh with the soapbox-in-Union-Square intensity of his delivery. Even Trump’s free-form invective is punctuated with guaranteed applause lines about fencing Mexicans out.
But Rubio — whose natural political gifts are probably greater than anyone’s in the Republican Party — has come to be seen as too glib for his own good. Even Rubio’s ad-libs give off a whiff of being practiced in front of a mirror for hours.
As a result, Rubio is saddled with a Peggy Lee problem as undecided voters in New Hampshire worry, “Is that all there is?” The 44-year-old senator (like youthful candidates before him from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) would always have had to contend with concerns that he was too much a young man in a hurry. But the same polish that has long impressed political insiders and pundits can come across as a sickness of slickness.
This perfect veneer (as well as his Cuban heritage) may explain why Rubio has been over-valued as a political commodity from the moment he entered the 2016 race. Coming out of Iowa, the result was that Rubio won more rapturous press coverage for finishing third in the caucuses than Ted Cruz garnered from his surprise victory. It is why the betting pools last week (after the Trump crumple) installed Rubio as the favorite for the nomination.
But New Hampshire has always been a state that enjoys deflating political egos. Which is why the story coming out of the Saturday night debate is that the half-forgotten three governors (Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush) chose the perfect moment to make their move in a state rich with undecided voters.
Anyone who looks to polls to handicap the baffling primary should think about an undecided voter named Joe Wheeler, an emergency medical dispatcher who lives in Litchfield.
Before Rubio spoke in Londonderry, Wheeler confided that he was just beginning to focus his attention on the primary. Wheeler recorded Saturday night’s debate and hopes to watch it. But as he explained, “I’ll get all my research done today and tomorrow. I have until Tuesday to decide who to vote for.”
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