A malfunctioning Marco Rubio crashed as he was overloaded by attacks last night from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who tried to portray the Florida U.S. senator as a Washington robot pre-programmed by political consultants during a high-stakes Republican debate…

Rubio’s glitchy debate performance could be a game-changer just as independents make up their minds two days before the crucial first-in-the-nation primary. The first-term senator’s rivals have raised concerns he’s too inexperienced — just like, they say, President Obama was — and isn’t ready for prime time.

Four different times — often word-for-word and at awkward non-sequiturs — Rubio claimed Obama intentionally wants to make America like the rest of the world.

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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.”

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Chris Christie on Sunday morning defended his latest attack on GOP presidential rival Marco Rubio, saying the senator doesn’t have the experience to be president.

“He’s just simply not ready,” Christie said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He’s a good guy but he is not ready to be president of the United States.”

“I’ve been saying this for a long time and I don’t think people have really listened,” he said.

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Christie led the charge on stage, and rival campaigns joined in, gleefully tweeted out a new “Marco Rubio Glitch” Twitter account that captured the robotic repeats and gained more than 1,000 followers quickly after the debate wrapped up.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was representing Jeb Bush in the spin room, told reporters that Rubio only reinforced the doubts about his readiness for the White House. “He’s really good at talking points and sound bites but he was off his game tonight,” he said. “I think the case for Marco being ready to be commander in chief took a hit tonight.”

In a fundraising email sent to reporters, Rubio’s campaign insisted that Rubio confidently laid out his accomplishments and showed he’s the conservative who can take on Hillary Clinton. “This week the other candidates made one thing clear: They were going to try and take out Marco tonight. They failed,” the email read, also stating in all caps, “AND YES, HE STUCK TO HIS GUNS ON WHY OBAMA HAS BEEN AN AWFUL PRESIDENT!!!”

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Marco Rubio’s already-famous exchange with Chris Christie was indeed a brutal moment. I still can’t believe that Rubio went back to the same talking point right after Christie called him on it. Watching it real-time, I honestly wondered if Rubio forgot what he just said. When he started to do the same thing a third time, I couldn’t believe my ears. Christie wasn’t masterful — not by any means — Rubio just served him the worst kind of hanging curve…

I like Rubio. I’ve made no secret of that fact. And a number of his other debate answers were excellent (his answer on women and the draft, however, was just dreadful, PC nonsense.) But the fact that he knew he would be a target and stumbled so badly is troubling.

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Rubio recovered later in the debate with answers about national security and the nature of conservatism. But over the course of seven previous debates, his advisers had grown used to crowing that he won every one. Not this time. In the spin room afterward, top Rubio aides bragged not that their man conquered all, but that he wasn’t lying flat on the canvas…

“We came into this debate saying that the goal was to get through it, knowing that you have a bunch of candidates who are in a fight for their life,” added another top aide, Alex Conant. “The other candidates came into this debate needing to knock Marco out and have a moment. They failed to knock Marco out, and the best moments of the debate belonged to Marco.” Except, of course, that the worst moment of the debate belonged to Marco, too.

For their part, Team Christie was delighted. More than delighted. “Oh man, it was the clearest one yet!” campaign manager Mike DuHaime exclaimed as he walked into the spin room, as if Christie had had a string of victories before but this one was the most decisive. “He’s prepared to give one-minute speeches,” DuHaime said of Rubio. “He’s not prepared to be president of the United States.”

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Rubio didn’t just embarrass himself; he undermined the core argument for his campaign—that we overrate experience and underrate vision and resolve. And worse, it was on video: a short clip to show on news networks or cut into a negative advertisement. “Rubio’s repeat” will have a long life on daytime cable and late night comedy, an awkward, brutal, cringeworthy display of political failure.

Rubio needed a win on Saturday. He needed to show Republicans that Iowa wasn’t a fluke, that he could consolidate support and charge ahead of Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. Instead, at best, he gave a mixed performance, with good answers overshadowed by one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire Republican debate season.

It’s far too much to say that it will cost him the nomination. But it could push him down the ladder in New Hampshire and create renewed chaos in the nomination fight, as candidates such as Jeb Bush, Christie, and Gov. John Kasich rise, and Trump—largely unscathed—holds his spot on top.

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The debate had barely begun, and Rubio had walked into a trap. Accused of being a mindless reciter of talking points, he mindlessly recited talking points, over and over and over again. It was a theme the press had repeatedly noted, as it grew bored watched him give the same speech, the same answers to questions, over and over and over; Rubio’s besotted advisers termed it “message discipline.” On the debate stage, his inability to do anything but repeat the same line threatened to confirm the very criticism leveled against him: that behind his pretty rhetoric, there was little else.

Now the question is how serious the damage will be for Rubio, who had seemed on the brink of rallying his party behind him as the one candidate who could, as he frequently put it, “unite this party and unite this country.” The voters of New Hampshire are late deciders; at Republican events in the last couple of days, I’ve met many who said they were keeping their options open, including many who said they were counting on the debate to help them make up their minds. Would the debate, already being spun as a disaster for Rubio by his opponents, seem as awful to them as it did to the pundits? (Rubio’s team, for its part, professed to be unconcerned, with advisers telling reporters after the debate that all they saw was a practiced candidate capably attacking an unpopular president, to inevitable cheers from voters. But the advisers looked nervous.)

At a Rubio town hall on Thursday in Salem, I spoke to several voters who were gravitating toward him because they thought he could win. But his youth and inexperience represented a significant sticking point for some, as well as the impression that he was a little too slick.

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More than two-thirds of GOP insiders surveyed after the ABC News debate said Rubio lost, and more than 70 percent said the Florida senator’s performance will hurt his chances of toppling front-runner Donald Trump or even outpacing his fellow competitors for second place on Tuesday…

New Hampshire GOP insiders called Rubio “cringeworthy,” “badly programmed and robotic,” “so rehearsed he comes off as inauthentic,” and “exposed at last for the wind-up doll he is.”…

One South Carolina Republican said Rubio’s poor performance could threaten his ability to lock down the establishment lane moving to the Feb. 20 first-in-the-South primary if he falls short of expectations in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

“Just like Trump losing Iowa where he was expected to win, Rubio placing fourth will show he is vulnerable when under heavy fire and maybe he’s not the best candidate in the field,” the South Carolina GOP insider said. “It will raise doubts which will impact the donor class where Rubio has struggled relative to Cruz and Bush. Rubio needed a strong New Hampshire showing to secure more donors for the long-term primary campaign, and tonight he hurt his chances to finance through the entire primary calendar.”

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Incidentally, Donald Trump was the only candidate who challenged Rubio’s premise, dismissing Obama as a rank incompetent. But whether or not you like what Obama has done, and none of the Republican candidates do, Rubio is correct that he has done an awful lot, transforming U.S. policy not only on health care, economics, financial regulation, and Iran, but also on energy, education, taxation, gay rights, Iraq, Cuba, and much more. Rubio’s opponents have dismissed him as a Republican version of Obama — charismatic and inspiring but ultimately too young and inexperienced for the job. Rubio was essentially implying, but not quite daring to say out loud, that Republicans need their own version of Obama to reverse what he’s done.

Of course, one thing Obama has done is win two national elections. Rubio’s candidacy has benefited from a widespread belief that he would be the most electable Republican, a Cuban-American from humble roots, a natural politician with a stirring personal story who would look like tomorrow against Hillary Clinton’s yesterday. But that aura of electability took a big hit last night when he started to sound like a broken record and look like an empty suit. He certainly didn’t seem like someone who knew what he was doing.

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Many voters, especially those already skeptical about Rubio, may hear him say “Obama knows exactly what he’s doing” over and over again and come away thinking he is pro-Obama.

Interestingly enough, Obama also found himself with a similar problem during the 2008 Democratic primary when he made the comment, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” His argument was that Reagan was a transformative president who fundamentally altered the direction of the country, and he wanted to do for liberalism what Reagan did for conservatism.

But this fired up liberals and provided fuel to his opponents. Obama came under fire from both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who tried to portray him as failing to appreciate (from a liberal perspective) the awfulness of Reagan’s policies.

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When it comes to substance, Rubio draws on an inventory of well-prepared rhetorical modules, with just enough policy to sound sophisticated, that can be inserted where necessary to handle, say, the how-would-you-handle-ISIS question (Sunni ground army!) or disability benefits (get rid of phony claims!). There’s not much sacrifice involved in any of Rubio’s proposals — even avoiding budget apocalypse, which he claims to be very concerned about, is just a matter of raising the retirement age and slowing benefit hikes for the well-off. Nothing that hasn’t been floating around Washington for years. There’s a heavy emphasis on electability. Big, difficult questions (like robots taking everyone’s jobs) are ignored. Tellingly, however, Rubio has added a Trump Module, where he alludes to anger at stagnant wages.

He’s got an immigration module too. It ignores Rubio’s “Gang of 8” amnesty push while adopting what seems to be an Enforcement First framework, in which “nothing” happens, amnesty-wise, until the border is “secure.”…

All of this is mildly terrifying. If Rubio’s a “robot,” as many have charged, he’s a sophisticated new model robot with simulated humanistic elements and a charm algorithm. And if he still seems insubstantial–which he does–it’s a higher level of insubstantial than you expect: You don’t get the impression he’s actually thought through these problems, but he knows his modules. He’s the ideal choice for Student Body President of America, the best band at Band Camp.

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The best political attacks turn an opponent’s strength into a weakness. By indicting Rubio’s candidate skills—the fact that he’s so polished and talks so well—Chris Christie was attempting not just to blow up Rubio in the debate, but to diminish his biggest advantage and poison everything voters hear from him going forward. Voters will wonder, Is that answer Rubio just gave on ISIS, or vaccinations, or the estate tax a sign of a smart, fluid candidate? Or just another rehearsed, scripted soundbite?

It gets worse still: Christie’s attack dovetailed beautifully with the Right to Rise anti-Rubio ads blanketing the state. A voter just tuning into the debate last night who’s only seen campaign ads, and not the candidates themselves, would have seen the exchange as confirming the charges against Rubio—that he’s an empty suit who has never accomplished anything—that he’s heard over and over. The combination—Right to Rise softening up the target from the air; Christie dropping the hammer on the ground—couldn’t have been more effective if they’d coordinated it.

Seen in this light, Rubio’s stumble wasn’t like Rick Perry’s debate memory flub—it was more like the Mitt Romney 47 percent recording: a brutal hit that threatens to bleed the candidate for a long time afterwards.

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People are shallow. I know this because I’m a person and I’m shallow as f***. And because people are shallow, they seize on ready-made Narratives to organize information. Information is hard to organize, but if you have a handy Narrative with hooks to hang each new piece of information, it keeps everything nice and tidy…

So everyone gets a “book” on them, a short little description that is thought to be the Key to the whole, the Main Point, the blurb, the takeaway.

This is now part of book on Rubio — and it now serves as the row of hooks from which all previous information is now hanged, and from which all future information will be hanged too.

And that’s a big problem for Rubio, because while his answers are… well, I can’t say good, I will just say “smooth,” now people will hear those smooth answers and instead of saying “Gosh, what a smooth answer” they’ll say “Oh another 25 second canned answer.”…

But it does hurt, because while people were previously thinking “What a smart guy, he gave us all those smooth answers,” now they just will think “Oh, yeah, someone told him to memorize this and he did.”

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As I wrote after the previous debate, political reporters are in the “fog of war” phase of the campaign where our reactions aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home. Some of the reason we reporters thought Rubio’s answer was so awful is because it confirmed some of our gossip about Rubio, namely that he tends to give pat, repetitive answers. But we tend to be more sensitive about that stuff, because we watch every debate from start to finish, and then we see lots of the candidates’ stump speeches and town halls on top of it. There’s a fine line between a candidate who seems stilted and repetitive and one who seems “on message” instead.

Is there any evidence that home viewers saw Rubio’s performance differently? Well, maybe. On Google Trends, there was a huge spike in searches for Rubio during the debate — but it came not during his glitchy moments but instead after an effective answer he delivered on abortion about two hours into the debate. Meanwhile, a Google Consumer Surveys poll conducted midway through the debate found respondents thought that Trump, Rubio and Cruz (in that order) were winning the debate. Undoubtedly, this mostly just reflects the fact that Trump, Rubio and Cruz are the most popular Republican candidates to begin with, but it’s also a reminder that one bad answer, or one bad evening, may not weigh all that much on voters’ minds.

The other good news for Rubio is that most all of this will be forgotten about if he performs well in Tuesday’s primary.

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“I think the whole race changed last night,” Christie said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Because you know there was a march among some of the chattering class to anoint Senator Rubio. I think after last night, that’s over.”

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