We’ve got hours to kill before we get an exit poll out of New Hampshire and I don’t think Trump calling Cruz a “pussy” — sorry, Trump repeating a fan who called Cruz a “pussy” — is enough to keep us going. Besides, there’s no question mark hovering over Trump today: He’s going to win, and very probably will win handily. There’s not much of a question mark over Cruz either, as he’s likely to finish somewhere between third and fifth and won’t gain or lose much depending upon the actual order. The real mystery in New Hampshire has to do with Rubio and whether his “3-2-1” strategy is about to implode thanks to an instantly infamous gaffe at the last debate and strong finishes on the trail by Kasich and Bush. I’m not overstating it when I say that the nomination may hinge on how Rubio finishes tonight. If he’s a strong second, he’ll be a strong favorite in betting markets to win it all; if he finishes behind Kasich and (especially) Bush, there’ll be mass panic within the GOP establishment about how to stop Trump and Cruz over the next six weeks. If Rubio can’t pull out a win in South Carolina or Nevada after this, he’s likely done, and whether he can win there depends in part on whether he can surprise everyone tonight. Everything he says and does on the trail at this point is hugely consequential potentially, and not just for his own candidacy.
So here’s an awkward moment from a rally last night in New Hampshire, sufficiently so as to have been noticed by the New York Times:
[O]n Monday, Mr. Rubio, the Florida Republican, who has been under relentless criticism for uttering his talking points over and over in Saturday’s presidential debate, had another repetitious lapse…
“We are taking our message to families that are struggling to raise their children in the 21st century because, as you saw, Jeanette and I are raising our four children in the 21st century, and we know how hard it’s become to instill our values in our kids instead of the values they try to ram down our throats.
“In the 21st century, it’s becoming harder than ever to instill in your children the values they teach in our homes and in our church instead of the values that they try to ram down our throats in the movies, in music, in popular culture.”
Watch the clip below and you’ll notice what the Times noticed, that Rubio seems to catch himself the second time he says “throats,” presumably suddenly aware that he’s repeating another “25-second speech.” I’ve seen a hundred different reactions to this clip on Twitter since last night and, coincidentally, they seem to track precisely with whether the person is pro-Rubio or anti-. If you’re a Marco critic, this is further proof that Christie’s right that the “Rubot” relies too heavily on rhetorical modules. If you’re a Marco fan, it’s merely a rhetorical device — he’s using anaphora, repeating part of a sentence to build drama. An example would be, “I believe in America because I believe in opportunity. I believe in America because I believe in equality.” That’s … not what Rubio’s doing, though. As Jonathan Chait explains, he’s not repeating part of the sentence, he’s repeating the entire sentiment, as if he said, “I believe in America because I believe in opportunity. I believe in America because I believe in opportunity.”
The mundane truth, I think, is that while this isn’t anaphora, it also isn’t really a “robo-Rubio” moment. The guy’s just tired. He’s been working like a dog on the trail all week, he lost his train of thought in the middle of his stump speech, and he repeated a line. It’s night and day compared to him repeating himself multiple times on Saturday night while Christie was mocking him for being repetitive. If you’re trying to assimilate this into some “robot” narrative about Rubio, the best you can do is say that Christie’s hit damaged Rubio enough that we’re now debating every little rhetorical lapse he has on the trail whereas three days ago no one would have batted an eye. That’s the real danger from the debate, that Rubio will now be held to a higher rhetorical standard than the rest of the field in everything he says.
Since the “narrative” tonight hinges, as I say, on Rubio’s performance, here’s something for the lovers and the haters to mull while New Hampshire votes. For the lovers, Byron York says Rubio did a terrific job in his encounters with individual voters yesterday of reassuring them about his debate glitch. I absolutely believe it. There’s not another candidate in the field, I’d bet, who comes off as more charming and approachable in friendly discussion than Marco Rubio:
“I went into the debate leaning towards Rubio, and honestly I came out of the debate feeling ummmm, I don’t know,” Margie told me.
Then she came to the rally and stayed afterward to meet Rubio. I noticed that they chatted with him for quite a while, and I approached them afterward. As it turned out, any apprehensive feelings from the debate were erased by face-to-face time with the candidate. “The Chris Christie exchange, that troubled me,” Margie said as we stood near where Rubio was still shaking hands and meeting voters, half an hour after ending his speech. “I was undecided until just now. But after this — look at him right now with all these people. He’s taking the time, the care. It makes a difference when you come and meet them and shake their hand. I mean, he shook my hand three times.”
The surest way to convince someone that you’re not a robot is to show warmth. Rubio’s vastly better at that than Trump or Cruz are.
As for the haters, here’s a surprising piece from McKay Coppins about Rubio allegedly having a reputation among his friends for outsized anxiety, and occasionally even panic, about minor setbacks, a trait that would be hugely damaging to him as a candidate for president if it could somehow be demonstrated to voters. The “malfunction” at the debate suggested panic under fire in his inability to venture off-script when Christie was daring him to do so, but it’ll take more than that for this to become a rap on Rubio without better evidence:
But to those who have known him longest, Rubio’s flustered performance Saturday night fit perfectly with an all-too-familiar strain of his personality, one that his handlers and image-makers have labored for years to keep out of public view. Though generally seen as cool-headed and quick on his feet, Rubio is known to friends, allies, and advisers for a kind of incurable anxiousness — and an occasional propensity to panic in moments of crisis, both real and imagined.
This jittery restlessness has manifested itself throughout Rubio’s life, from high school football games in Miami to high-profile policy fights in Washington — and in some ways, it’s been the driving force in his rapid political rise…
“He just lets these little things get to him, and he worries too much,” a Miami Republican complained after spending close to an hour sitting next to Rubio on a flight as he fretted over a mildly critical process story about him in the National Journal. “I’m just like, ‘Marco, calm down.’”
I never, ever would have guessed that Rubio sweats setbacks. More than anyone else, he’s anointed by his fans as the chosen one; he was all of 39 years old when he knocked off a sitting governor in a landslide for a U.S. Senate seat. The impression I’ve always had of him is that he never doubts his ultimate victory because he’s able to talk his way out of anything, including the supposedly career-killing Gang of Eight disaster. He’d be in trouble if voters got a different impression of him, but like I say, how’s that going to happen barring him going into the fetal position during one of the remaining debates? If his team has projected an image of serene confidence as well as they have to this point, there’s no reason to think they’ll fail now.