The bullish and bearish cases for Marco Rubio

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.