MANCHESTER, N.H. — Marco Rubio, a first-term senator on the rise in the presidential race, faced a barrage of attacks in Saturday night’s Republican debate, with rivals challenging his readiness to be president, his commitment to his own policies and the depth of his experience.
Sen. Ted Cruz, fresh off his victory in the Iowa caucuses, also came under withering criticism for controversial campaign tactics, with rivals disparaging him for having “Washington ethics” and being willing to test the campaign’s legal limits.
Rubio finished third in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, but still exceeded expectations and appears to be gaining steam heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. His rise is a threat not only to front-runners Donald Trump and Cruz but to a trio of governors – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich – who need a strong showing in New Hampshire to stay in the campaign.
Christie furiously sought to undercut Rubio’s qualifications, declaring that the Florida senator has “not been involved in a consequential decision where you need to be held accountable.” Christie also accused Rubio of being a candidate governed by talking points – then pounced when the senator played into his hands by repeating multiple times what appeared to be a planned response to criticisms about his qualifications.
“That’s what Washington, D.C., does,” Christie said. “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
Rubio has sought to deflect criticism of his relative inexperience and the comparisons it draws to President Barack Obama by arguing the problem with the president isn’t that he’s naive, but that he’s pushing an ideology that hurts the country. He made that point repeatedly throughout the debate.
Rubio wavered in defending his decision to walk away from the sweeping immigration bill he originally backed in the Senate – perhaps the legislation he’s most closely associated with – and said he wouldn’t pursue similar legislation as president.
“We can’t get that legislation passed,” Rubio said of the bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of people in the United States illegally.
Cruz was the victor in Iowa, triumphing over billionaire Trump by drawing heavily on the support of evangelical voters. But he’s faced criticism for messages his campaign sent to voters ahead of the caucuses saying rival Ben Carson – another favorite of religious conservatives – was dropping out and urging the retired neurosurgeon’s supporters to back him instead.
Cruz apologized for his campaign’s actions Saturday, but not before Carson jabbed him for having “Washington ethics.”
Those ethics, he said, “say if it’s legal, you do what you do to win.”
Trump was back on the debate stage after skipping the last contest before the Iowa caucuses. After spending the past several days disputing his second-place finish in Iowa, he sought to refocus on the core messages of his campaign, including blocking Muslims from coming to the U.S. and deporting all people in the country illegally.
Kasich, who has staked his White House hopes on New Hampshire, offered a more moderate view on immigration, though one that’s unpopular with many GOP primary voters. He said that if elected president, he would introduce legislation that would provide a pathway to legalization, though not citizenship, within his first 100 days in office.
The debate began shortly after North Korea defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket that the United Nations and others call a cover for a banned test of technology for a missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.
Asked how he would respond to North Korea’s provocations, Bush said he would authorize a pre-emptive strike against such rockets if it was necessary to keep America safe. Cruz demurred, saying he wouldn’t speculate about how he’d handle the situation without a full briefing. And Trump said he’d rely on China to “quickly and surgically” handle North Korea.
Trump’s grip on the Republican field has been shaken by his runner-up finish in Iowa, though he leads in preference polls in New Hampshire.