MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With a solid debate performance over the weekend and a strong showing in New Hampshire Tuesday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a chance to put the rest of the GOP establishment on borrowed time. Instead, there is a real danger for Rubio that a Granite State stumble could turn into a national fall.
He could still relegate the other mainstream Republicans to the fringe with a decisive victory here in the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday. But following his third place performance in Iowa, Rubio faces a dangerous electoral concoction: a combination of high expectations and the possibility that another establishment candidate, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, could beat him.
If a Rubio rally on Sunday was any indication, the senator’s exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Saturday night's debate that pointed out his propensity to repeat the same talking points is actually giving Rubio’s supporters, long-standing ones and the prospective kind, pause.
“Rubio got a little beat-down,” Will Stewart of Manchester said at an event that was billed as a Super Bowl watch party with Rubio.
“The whole talking point issue is concerning,” Stewart, who is undecided, continued. “You hope there’s a little more depth there.”
New London resident Paul Licari -- who said he was deciding among Kasich, Rubio and Christie -- described the exchange this way: “Christie was on it.”
Even Rubio’s strongest allies were a little taken aback by the Florida senator resorting to the same canned line criticizing President Barack Obama after Christie called him on doing just that.
Eddie Foye of Hookset told HuffPost he has been impressed with Rubio since the first time he heard him speak as a senator, and he’s been a Rubio supporter from early in the presidential race. And even though Foye came away from the debate exchange disliking Christie more, he admitted he was surprised at how poorly Rubio had handled the situation.
“Marco was a little unprepared for his answers,” he said.
Al Nunes of Wilmot, who said he was a Rubio supporter “more or less,” called the Christie-Rubio exchange interesting.
“It was fair,” Nunes said. “The way I look at it is, if you can’t -- I mean, you got to get through these debates, you got to get through the process.”
Rubio defended his response and said he would continue to repeat the same point.
“It’s funny people keep saying it’s a bad thing. I’m going to keep saying it over and over again,” he said.
Rubio was able to break from his stump script a bit more than usual Sunday, cracking jokes about the Super Bowl and delivering some witty repartee with the audience.
When Rubio told the crowd that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had said there's a special place in hell for women who don't vote for Hillary Clinton, a woman in the back of the athletic training facility, where the event was being held, shouted that she was going to hell then.
“Well here's the good news, ma'am: You don't have to,” Rubio said, thinking on his feet. “You can vote against her and still find salvation."
While many attendees thought they were coming to watch the Super Bowl with Rubio -- it was, after all, billed as a watch party -- Rubio seemed to accomplish what he needed to in a speech that was roughly 20 minutes and then, after taking some photos, departed before the game began.
And that seemed to be enough for Granite Staters on the fence.
“His response was that he stands by what he says,” Nunes told HuffPost after the event. “I’m comfortable with it. He showed me that he’s comfortable with himself. It was not like it’s being portrayed as talking points. He said what he meant.”
Nunes, who was still hedging before the speech, said Rubio had locked down his vote.
Samantha-Jo Roth contributed reporting.