Did Rubio squander his big moment?

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. “He is very broad and sweeping in everything he says—there are not a lot of details,” a 70-year-old retired accountant and teacher named Karen Manzo said. “Then again, they all do that, don’t they? Try to be all things to all people.” Debbie Vance, a 52-year-old office manager from Litchfield, found Rubio charismatic, but “you could have sat home and watched his TV commercials,” she said. “He recited all the same things.”

If the debate does pop Rubio’s bubble, it will be a blow to the professional Republicans of Washington, D.C., for whom he seemed to represent the party’s last hope. They have spent the primary season on tenterhooks, alternately horrified and confused by the dominance of Trump, whom they consider a clown, and Cruz, whom they consider loathsome. That Rubio was making some headway in the inscrutable hearts of the regular Republican voters of Real America had given them a glimmer of hope that perhaps the party could recover from the past several months’ insanity.