On the day New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dropped out of the presidential race, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said there are no hard feelings towards him for his damaging attack during the last Republican debate.

“I like Chris,” Florida Sen. Rubio said, speaking to reporters aboard a plane to South Carolina Wednesday morning. “Despite all this stuff, I’ve always liked Chris and I still like Chris. I think he has a future in public service beyond what he’s doing now in New Jersey. The only thing I don’t like about him is he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan, but we can’t all be perfect.”…

“He was trying to win,” Rubio said of the debate. “And in order to win he made a decision that he had to come after me. I respect that.”

***

Talking to reporters, Rubio said his awkward repetition of a line of attack against President Obama during a televised debate in New Hampshire on Saturday “probably cost us a couple of thousand votes of undecided at the last moment.”

Rubio said he turned to criticize Obama as Chris Christie was attacking him during the debate because he doesn’t “like Republicans fighting on national television. I think it helps the Democrats. They love to see us do that.”

“And so I wanted to avoid that and just kind of tilt it away from the question they asked and tilt it back to what I think is the most important issue in this campaign, and that’s the damage Barack Obama has done,” Rubio said.

“But in an effort to do that, you know you create this perception you’re trying to avoid something. So from now on, if there’s an issue to be dealt with, even if it means we have to tussle a little bit, I’m going to do it.”

***

Marco Rubio landed in South Carolina on Wednesday aiming to engineer a reboot for his once high-flying campaign, but so far his camp is mostly blaming the media for exaggerating his glitchy performances.

“I think the media made it what it was,” South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who has endorsed Rubio, told POLITICO.

“I think it was overblown by the media,” Colorado Senator Cory Gardner said.

Though he did it cheerfully and with a smile, Rubio also complained that the reporters who follow him are too quick to pounce on his repetition of canned lines in stump speeches. “You guys have heard it fifty times… but the voter—that may be the first time they’ve ever seen me,” he said. “Sometimes you do have to repeat things, because these [voters] aren’t sitting in front of C-Span all day watching ‘Road to the White House.’”

***

So ‪#‎DonaldTrump‬ boycotts a debate. ‪#‎JohnKasich‬, ‪#‎JebBush‬ & ‪#‎BenCarson‬ repeatedly stumble through debates. ‪#‎CarlyFiorina‬ is unfairly excluded from debates. ‪#‎TedCruz‬ blatantly insults all New Yorkers in a debate. ‪#‎ChrisChristie‬ verbally assaults his former BFF The POTUS in debates… and the mainstream media doesn’t find much of a problem with any of it?

Yet when ‪#‎MarcoRubio‬ repeats himself in a debate- after being masterful and eloquent in almost all of the previous debates- the mainstream media decides that it is a major problem?

Such contradictions only indicate that they must be very afraid of Mr Marco Rubio winning the ‪#‎GOP‬ nomination. It also indicates that those concerns are not due to any alleged “lack of experience”. Just saying.

***

“It’s ended Marco Rubio’s chance to be the Republican nominee in my estimation,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “If he finishes below his mentor Jeb Bush, the rationale for his candidacy collapses.”

A group of Bush donors had been set to announce they were shifting their support to Rubio as early as Wednesday. But when Bush finished just ahead of Rubio Tuesday night, those donors remain frozen in place at least through South Carolina, a state establishment Republicans continue to hope will provide some clarity.

***

“Jeb’s people want to call this a victory but it’s not. What this is: a symptom of everyone training their guns on Marco and the media looking to take him down a notch,” one Rubio insider said. “And, yes, Marco f— up big time on stage. There’s no denying it.”

One longtime Rubio supporter who backs Bush faulted Rubio’s campaign for the slip-up. He said they drove Rubio too hard and too long and he didn’t have enough sleep. In the days before New Hampshire primary, Rubio struggled to find his footing coming off as subdued and tired during some of his final campaign stops. Rubio also repeated himself, again, this time about family values in his last campaign rally in Nashua, N.H., before the primary.

“It was the pace. He couldn’t keep up,” the source said. “And then they doubled-down on it – tripled and quadrupled down on it afterward. That was surreal.”

***

The episode was such a shock that not even Mr. Rubio seemed to understand the gravity of the situation as he left the stage at St. Anselm College just after 10 on Saturday night. His wife and four children rushed to greet him in a private back room, followed by somber-faced aides, who delivered their candid assessment.

It was not, Mr. Rubio conceded to them, his best performance. But only after the senator scrolled through Twitter — flooded with brutal, mocking reviews — did he fully grasp the damage he had done to his own campaign.

His aides and supporters, on the other hand, had been hearing it all night. “Shocked” was how one supporter close to the campaign leadership described the reaction. The emails pouring in from donors were incredulous. Why did he not fight harder against Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who had mercilessly mocked him? Why did he keep repeating the same talking points? Why was he sweating so much?

At his campaign headquarters in Washington, some of the younger staff members were so deflated that senior advisers met with them on Sunday morning to reassure them the episode was just a hiccup — the kind that happens all the time in presidential races.

***

Rubio’s senior team concedes the New Hampshire setback will extend the Republican nomination fight for at least another three months, if not longer.

“We very easily could be looking at May — or the convention” in July before there’s a “functional nominee,” Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan said in a brief interview with The Associated Press. “I would be surprised if it’s not May or the convention.”

There hasn’t been a contested national convention since 1976, yet Republican National Committee officials have already had preliminary discussions about the possibility of no candidate securing a majority of delegates in the state-by-state primary contests.

It’s by no means assured that Rubio’s candidacy will survive that long.

***

The only part of this sunny theory that still holds up is that voters—at least the ones who would consider voting for someone like Rubio—are getting serious. And their serious determination is that Rubio needs a lot of work. If you can’t handle one week with everyone punching at you, how are you going to handle, say, a general election?

Christie helpfully reminded Rubio that he cannot dawdle around with third-place finishes and expect the party to naturally funnel his way in mid-March. He cannot begin ignoring his Republican rivals and training his eye on the general election yet. He still has to fend off Jeb Bush and Kasich on one side and Cruz on the other. He has to take more questions. He has to de-robotify his presentation, or at least tweak his internal programming to present a more relatable exterior to the humans he seeks to court. He has to expect that he will lose rather than win.

One reason not to write off Rubio is that he has taken a pounding like this before and lived to tell about it. He was written off following his work on comprehensive immigration reform. Though it may not have been the most noble move to back away from the bill he co-authored, doing so allowed him to repair his relationship with conservatives to the point that he now enjoys strong favorability ratings and room to grow. If he could come back from that drawn-out episode, he can come back from this poor showing. But no one’s going to hand him anything.

***

The class of donors and operatives who so hoped that Rubio would wrap things up Tuesday night may be disappointed but have no reason to consider this the last battle. As Rubio said in his speech, “We did not wind up where we wanted to be, but that does not change where we’re going to be at the end of the fight.”

This theory assumes, though, that Rubio occupies a naturally large space that neither Bush nor Kasich is capable of filling. The part about no one being able to fill it besides Rubio may be true. But what if New Hampshire was a sign that voters do consider Rubio a lightweight, and his space just evaporates? Or Bush continues to bleed votes from Rubio eternally?

Cruz and Trump have won the first two nominating states. History dictates that one of them will be the nominee, and they’re the favorites heading into South Carolina. With the very notable exception of Newt Gingrich in 2012, South Carolina always picks the Republican nominee. The party doesn’t just need to settle on an establishment nominee around whom to rally—it needs that person to be a great candidate with a strong campaign to pull off what would be a history-defying comeback against Trump or Cruz. Rubio was eyed as the only candidate of the four who could fill that role. What if he can’t?

***

Instead, the real takeaway was this: Something clear and true was revealed by Rubio’s repetitive, canned answer to Christie’s charge that he couldn’t stop repeating canned answers. The most devastating political attacks, scandals, and gaffes are the ones that reinforce a deeper truth about a politician. There’s a reason Hillary Clinton’s email scandal sticks — it reinforces the widely held idea that she’s secretive and arrogant. Something similar is true of Christie crushing Rubio for his robot-like recitation of anti-Obama rhetoric — it reinforces the widely held idea that Rubio doesn’t really believe what he says

Christie demonstrated on stage what many people have carried as almost a grudge against Rubio — that he believes he’s such a hotshot that he doesn’t need to earn voters’ trust. Simply by intoning the right phrases with the right pathos, he’ll ride to the White House on a crest of faith that, without him, the Republican Party cannot step into the future.

This is why Rubio’s Gang of Eight immigration reform dalliance keeps coming up. It’s not because virulent anti-immigrant sentiment has gripped the field (or the debate moderators), but because Rubio really believes he can leave his past political commitments in the same dust as the Bush-era GOP. He’ll be who he has to be to win — and you want to win, don’t you?

***

It’s not just that Rubio looks so full of himself (despite constantly beating the drum of Christian humility!), or that even if you appreciate his personality, he might still strike you, as he did the Tampa Bay Times, as “a likable opportunist with a persuasive sales pitch but a thin record of accomplishment.” That apparent burn actually describes the Platonic ideal of the upwardly mobile young American—a model that hordes of talented people (including news journalists) emulate out of the same sense of necessity Team Rubio feels.

No, there’s something more here. The trouble with Rubio’s history in Washington is not that he did so little, but that he did so badly. At decision point after decision point, Rubio’s judgment led him astray, snookered by the Beltway establishment. On immigration, he bought what Chuck Schumer was selling; on Libya, what Hillary Clinton was. With unforced errors like these, who needs land mines?

Rubio has not closed the trust gap with conservatives who worry he’ll get duped again in the White House by canny but squishy operators and scheming mentor types. He hasn’t even closed the trust gap with Republicans concerned he’ll get rolled by Democrats where the presidency matters most—filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, for instance.

***

Rubio’s problems are far deeper than some flub. For starters, he seems to believe that if he’s perceived as the most electable GOP contender in the general, rank-and-file conservatives will come to him as they have often done in similar situations in the past. Well, 2016 doesn’t work that way. This is an election about grievances and anger, not expedient positioning.

Other than his third place “win” in Iowa, Rubio has done nothing to distinguish his candidacy. His middling poll numbers have never suggested a clear path through the crowded moderate/establishment/governors field. In his own weird way, Trump has clogged this “moderate” path. Bush and Chris Christie, theoretically the closest ideologically to Rubio, have worked to sink him. And they probably have. No Republican has ever lost Iowa and New Hampshire and won the nomination…

Rubio, like Barack Obama before him, has been running for president since the day he joined the Senate. The guy has a lot going for him, but he disastrously misread the mood of the country with the bipartisan reform bill on immigration. In the Obama/Tea Party era, you can be a principled senator who attempts to get things done (and Rubio was almost certainly a sincere believer in immigration reform), or you can try to be president. You can’t do both. For many conservatives, immigration is the most pressing economic, political, and cultural issue the nation faces. They can absolve you of wrongdoing if you were a tepid supporter of amnesty; not if you’re part of the gang trying to push through the bill. Robot or not.

***

Given that equality-in-ineptitude — and after what we just witnessed in New Hampshire — there’s no reason to assume that any of them will have a breakout moment in South Carolina. Kasich will probably lag, but another virtual tie between Jeb and Rubio seems entirely plausible. In which case all three men could still be in the race a month from now, with Kasich hanging on hoping for a big win in his native Ohio while Jeb and Rubio wage an Eastern Front-style war in Florida.

If that happens, there would probably no longer be a path to outright victory through the so-called establishment lane — only a path to delegate accumulation, with an eye toward a contested convention in the summer

The question for those politicians now is how deep the delusion runs. For Bush or Rubio, especially, a fourth-place finish in South Carolina should mark the end of their campaigns. Will it? Or is there enough stubbornness and folly in either man to keep on sawing off their party’s nose to spite the other’s face?

***

***