By Matt Fuller
NASHUA, N.H. — In an alternate debate reality, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did exactly what he needed to do Saturday night: He withstood the criticism from his GOP establishment competitors, he stayed out of the headlines, and he continued to gather the momentum that his campaign insists is propelling him toward the Republican nomination.
But in the world we actually live in — where Rubio robotically repeated his talking points after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called him out for robotically repeating his talking points — New Hampshire voters who could have broken late toward Rubio now seem to be looking elsewhere.
At a town hall in a community college cafeteria with Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Sunday afternoon — not exactly the best voter screen, of course, but still — a number of New Hampshire voters told The Huffington Post that they were having second thoughts about Rubio after the debate.
“I was leaning Rubio until I saw that,” George Grossman of Nashua said. “Granted it was one moment, but I’m curious to see how he recovers from that, or if he recovers from that. That might be ones of those Howard Dean-type moments.”
Tim McGough of Merrimack, who was leaning Kasich before the debate but was still “thinking about Rubio,” decided not to attend a rally for the freshman Senator in Londonderry on Sunday because of Rubio’s performance. “After the debate, we said, ‘Eh, we don’t need to.’”
McGough reported that he was watching the debate with a colleague, and when Rubio couldn’t go off script to respond to Christie’s criticism that he relied too heavily on talking points and a “memorized 25-second speech,” his colleague genuinely thought she was re-watching the same clip played back on TiVo.
“And then Christie chimes in and is like, ‘Wait, there it is again,’ and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah! I guess he did say it again,” McGough recounted.
Another voter, who said he was from Merrimack and that his name was Don but declined to give his last name, reported that he decided to come to the Kasich event on Sunday only after seeing Rubio’s performance during Saturday’s debate.
Don said he was leaning toward Rubio very strongly before last night. “Matter of fact, I was actually convincing one of my friends that he should also back Sen. Rubio yesterday afternoon,” he said. But after Rubio’s exchange with Christie, Don said he wanted to see more of Kasich.
Don was like a lot of Kasich supporters on Sunday, telling HuffPost that they were turned off by Christie’s brash, “attack dog” style and liked Kasich’s positive tone.
Kasich is between second and fourth in most polls here in New Hampshire, and he, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Christie, both benefit greatly from Rubio not wrapping up the election so fast. Kasich’s entire strategy has seemed to hinge on a strong showing in New Hampshire — and the Rubio misstep might have been exactly what he needed to stay in the race.
But, this being New Hampshire, where voters often break late and make up their minds in the voting booth, there’s still plenty of time for Rubio to recover — or further damage his numbers.
“Being the typical New Hampshire voter,” Don said, “I might walk in the day of and make my final decision.
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