In GOP debate, a tough night for front-runners but a good night for governors

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. – It was a tough night for front-runners in New Hampshire and a good night for governors.

Marco Rubio hit a wall named Chris Christie. Donald Trump couldn’t put down an aggressive Jeb Bush. And Ted Cruz had to issue a public apology to Ben Carson.

Christie was the relentless prosecutor. Bush was knowledgeable and, in contrast to some earlier performances, tough and direct. Ohio Gov. John Kasich carved out space as a candidate ready and willing to work across party lines.

Given the timing and the state of the Republican nomination contest, few debates have had the potential to shape the order of finish in a primary campaign more than Saturday night’s forum at Saint Anselm College. Trump holds a big lead. But the competition underneath him is fierce, and the outcome Tuesday likely to be consequential. Those with the most to lose were the ones who tried to make the most out of their time on stage.

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No one had a rockier night than Rubio, the senator from Florida whose strong third-place finish in Iowa made him the candidate on the rise in the Republican presidential race. But under a blistering attack from Christie, who characterized him as a politician with no notable accomplishments who had run away from the immigration reform bill he had co-sponsored, Rubio faltered.

Rubio knew the attacks were coming, but instead of answering them directly, he sought to change the subject. Once, twice, three times he offered a quick counterpunch and then slid off the criticisms to turn to an attack on President Obama, repeating his language almost word for word and drawing boos from the audience.

When he accused Christie of having to be shamed into going back to New Jersey to deal with the recent snowstorm, Christie came roaring back. “That’s what Washington, D.C., does,” Christie said. “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”

What was most striking was the fact that Rubio played directly into the criticism that, while he is a gifted and natural communicator, he is overly scripted and returns to his standard stump speech as quickly as he can.

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The strategy has worked for him in past debates, but repetition got the better of him on Saturday. Rubio wanted to debate Obama and Hillary Clinton, warning time and again that the president has deliberately led the country in the wrong direction and that Clinton would extend those policies. Those kinds of attacks bring cheers at his campaign rallies but were far less effective during Saturday’s debate.

In the later stages of the debate, Rubio seemed to regain his footing both on foreign policy and on a question about abortion in which he talked about the balance between a woman’s right to make her own decisions and the right of an unborn child to live.

Even when Bush drew a distinction with Rubio over whether there should be an exception for rape, incest and life of the woman, which Bush favors, Rubio said he would sign a bill as president that included those exceptions but that he still stood by his personal convictions. Rubio said he would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue.

Trump struggled when the subject of eminent domain, a hot-button issue for many conservatives who dislike government, was introduced. The billionaire builder initially offered a ringing defense of the practice of government taking private property for such projects as roads and bridges.

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Bush countered, initially agreeing that eminent domain is necessary for the public good but then attacking Trump for attempting to use the practice to take property from an elderly woman in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for the purpose of a parking lot for one of his casinos.

Trump reverted to attacks he has long leveled at Bush – that he lacks strength or energy. “He wants to be a tough guy,” Trump said dismissively.

But Bush came right back at him: “How tough is it to take away a property from an elderly woman?” he said sarcastically.

When Trump told Bush to keep quiet, the audience let out another round of boos, to which Trump said, “That’s all his donors and special interests.”

Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, had two difficult moments at the start of the evening. The first came over criticism Cruz leveled at Trump earlier in the week, saying, “I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable with someone who behaves this way having his finger on the button.”

Trump was given the first word and defended himself. He reminded everyone that he had opposed the war in Iraq, adding, “I’m not the one with the trigger.”

“Other people up here, believe me, would be a lot faster,” he said.

When Cruz was asked to explain why he thought Trump lacked the temperament to be president, he ducked. “The assessment the voters are making here in New Hampshire and across the country is they are evaluating each and every one of us,” he said.

Reminded by ABC News anchor David Muir that he had not explained why he had made the earlier comment, Cruz ducked again.

Trump responded: “He didn’t answer your question. And that’s what’s going to happen with our enemies and the people we compete against. . . . People back down with Trump. And that’s what I like, and that’s what the country is going to like.”

That didn’t end the early hazing for Cruz. He was asked why his advisers had called Iowa volunteers on the night of the caucuses to say that Carson might be quitting the race and to encourage voters to back the senator from Texas.

Cruz blamed the problem on what he said was a misleading news report on CNN that he said was not corrected for several hours. But he also apologized to Carson and said he had done so the day after the caucuses.

Carson, in his typically quiet way, accepted the apology but not the explanation. “In fact, the timeline indicates that initial tweet from CNN was followed by another one within one minute that clarified that I was not dropping out,” he said.

More than in other previous debates, this one turned into governors against the others. The three share common experiences, and when they talk about one another, it’s clear there is mutual respect, though they are in a battle in which they cannot all survive. And whether by design or accident, the three seemed to reinforce one another in taking down the candidates who finished first, second and third in Iowa.

Christie delivered one of the strongest performances of the campaign, clearly determined to knock down Rubio, whom he described this past week as “a boy in the bubble.” Fighting for his political life, he was merciless in attacking Rubio for lacking the courage to fight for the immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate but faltered in the House.

Rubio countered by attacking Christie’s record in New Jersey, noting that the state has gone through repeated credit downgrades during his two terms. The audience seemed to side with Christie. Whether voters will do the same is the test for the next three days.

Kasich was the happy warrior, a governor who stressed jobs, the economy and dealing realistically with issues, not on the basis of pure ideology. Bush has tried for many months to make his record in Florida the centerpiece of his candidacy. Only now in these closing days has he appeared more comfortable as a candidate.

Saturday’s debate here offered a last opportunity for candidates to make a persuasive argument before a primary election likely to winnow the field of realistic hopefuls to four at most.

The New Hampshire electorate is famously fickle for upending front-runners and defying conventional wisdom and turning its back on winners in Iowa. A more charitable description is that this is a state where voters keep their options open as long as possible.

While it’s true that many voters have been locked in for weeks or months, a sizable number are spending these last few days shopping and pondering. They are at every rally on this final weekend, looking for that connection that tips them firmly in one direction or another.

That makes pollsters nervous and campaigns hopeful. The candidates know lightning can strike, and they grasp for every sign that it is happening to them. In the days after Iowa, there has been some movement in the polls but nothing definitive yet.

What makes this year’s GOP primary distinctive from past campaigns is the number of candidates on this final weekend who still think they have a chance to move on to succeeding rounds of primaries and caucuses. Saturday’s debate underscored both the sense of possibility and the sense of urgency that surrounds the last days of campaigning here.