LONDONDERRY, N.H. — Sen. Marco Rubio took heat for repeating the same talking points about President Barack Obama, almost word for word, during Saturday night’s debate.
At his first rally Sunday morning, the senator from Florida defiantly doubled down, reiterating the same point in the face of negative commentary across the conservative and mainstream press.
“People are tuned in because you know the truth: All of the things that made this country special are in trouble,” Rubio told a crowd of about 800 packed into a high school cafeteria. “You know, it’s interesting, right now, after last night’s debate, [people are saying,] ‘Oh, you said the same thing three or four times.’ Well, I’m going to say it again. The reason why these things are in trouble is because Barack Obama is the first president, at least in my lifetime, that wants to change the country. . . . Not fix its problems; he wants to make it a different kind of country.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” Rubio said, “Absolutely not,” when asked whether he will make any changes as a result of his debate performance.
Senior Rubio campaign officials are equally adamant that there will be no recalibration as a result of his performance, which was widely described as robotic. They say they raised more money during the debate than any of the previous ones.
A fiery Rubio took the stage 35 minutes behind schedule. He explained that Obama, like Rubio, a first-term senator when he ran for president, was never incompetent but instead a liberal ideologue who intentionally pushed through programs that are deeply unpopular among conservatives.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ripped Rubio for giving what he called the same “25-second canned speeches.” “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos told Rubio it didn’t seem like a good moment and noted that Democrats are circulating videos mocking him.
“Well, actually, I would pay them to keep running that clip because that’s what I believe passionately,” Rubio replied. “It’s what I believe. And it’s what I’m going to continue to say because it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running.”
At his rally here just outside Manchester, Rubio explained that Obamacare and the Iran nuclear agreement were not accidents but strategic priorities.
“Everything that makes us special is under attack,” he said. “If the next four years are anything like the last seven, we are in big time trouble.”
It was the first public event in a busy Sunday for Rubio, who has found himself on the upswing after his surprisingly strong third-place finish in Iowa last week. He also has town halls planned in Bedford and Hudson before a Super Bowl watch party in Manchester. The main question now is whether, or to what degree, perceptions of the debate will dent his momentum.
Rubio took the stage to harsh coverage. The front page of the right-leaning Boston Herald tabloid declared that he “wilted” under attacks from Christie. The banner headline is: “CHOKE!”
Playing to the base, Rubio ratcheted up his criticism of not just Obama but also Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
He seized on a comment that former secretary of state Madeline Albright made during a rally with Clinton on Saturday. Albright had said Saturday, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
The crowd here booed.
Then Rubio presented himself as the GOP’s best hope to stop Clinton from becoming president.
“I don’t think she’s qualified to be president,” he said. “If you nominate me, we will win this election. . . . No one else in this race can unite the conservative movement and the Republican Party faster than I can.”
“We’re going to win New Hampshire in the general election,” he added.
For good measure, Rubio also whacked at Sanders, considered the front-runner ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
“The Bern’s a socialist,” he said. “I don’t want to be a socialist. If you want to be socialist, move to Scandinavia.”
During a question-and-answer session, an undecided voter told Rubio that he was torn between him and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Rubio responded that the two men each have among the most conservative voting records in Congress, but he accused Cruz of wanting to implement a value-added tax and to cut defense spending.
“We get along,” he said. “I like him a lot. I think they’re important areas of difference.”
Another supporter rose to thank Rubio for his “pro-life comments in last night’s debate.” The senator had defended his opposition to abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, saying he’s willing to lose an election because of his firm position on the issue.
During the interview on ABC, Stephanopoulos pressed Rubio on his comments about abortion and immigration during the debate, as well as a quote from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., who said afterward, “The case that Marco Rubio is ready to be commander in chief took a hit.”
Rubio pointed out that Graham supports former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “I don’t expect that he’s going to say positive things about me,” he quipped, adding confidently: “No one on that stage has a better understanding or has shown better judgment on foreign policy than I have, period.”
With his status in New Hampshire more in doubt after Saturday night, Rubio sought to play down expectations about how he needs to finish in the state. His close allies and a top fundraiser have told people for weeks that their strategy is to finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and first in South Carolina.
Rubio denied that his campaign ever said that. All he would say on ABC is: “We want to get as many people to vote for me as possible.”