There's a famous scene in the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives in which human robot Paula Prentiss suffers a massive circuitry meltdown. Over and over she dumps coffee grounds on the kitchen counter, smashes breakfast mugs on the floor, and utters her pre-programmed catch-phrases in an endless loop. In the final Republican debate before the New Hampshire presidential primary, something similar happened to Marco Rubio. Faced with a withering attack from a ready-to-rumble Chris Christie, Rubio delivered a performance that constitutes a whole new genre of losing a televised debate. Like Paula Prentiss, he got stuck in malfunction mode.
Christie's attack on Rubio, which came early in the nearly three-hour marathon, boiled down to a simple challenge: what has Rubio actually accomplished, other than being a well-oiled sound bite machine? Instead of rebutting the charge, Rubio responded like a well-oiled sound bite machine, reiterating three times, nearly word for word, a canned speech about the evils of Barack Obama. Even after Christie pointed out that it was a canned speech, Rubio went right back to his memorized spiel. Christie dug the grave, and Rubio jumped into it.
Throughout this Republican debate series, Marco Rubio has stood apart as a candidate of superior communication skills. His track record in these events has been enviable, and even though he has shown a tendency to come off as glib, up until this debate Rubio never got cast in the Rick Perry/Dan Quayle mold. This time he lost command of himself. And it isn't as though he didn't have fair warning: several of Rubio's opponents have spent the past week going after him with much the same line of attack that he faced in the debate.
Where did that leave the other contenders? For Chris Christie, it was a good night, not only because he reduced Rubio to rubble, but because he effectively rose to the challenge at hand. Campaign debates are situational, requiring candidates to understand what is needed of them at a particular moment in the saga. With his back against the wall, Christie threw everything he had into his performance. It may not be enough to propel him to victory in the primary, but at least he'll have gone down fighting.
The two other governors onstage, John Kasich and Jeb Bush, also did well for themselves. Kasich aimed his message squarely at the independent-minded voters of New Hampshire, responding with an agreeability that almost felt like it came out of a general election campaign. Bush, though he will never be a titan of debating, upped his game several notches, even successfully taking on the class bully, Donald Trump.
For his part, Trump managed to stay out of harm's way, at least to the extent that it's possible to stay out of harm's way when much of what you say seems calculated to offend. Trump's answers were the usual self-referential grab bag of braggadocio and non-sequiturs, but for any candidate with high poll standings, the goal is essentially to avoid incoming fire--most of which, in this case, was directed at Marco Rubio instead.
Ted Cruz, fresh from winning in Iowa, was unable to parlay his momentum into a debate triumph in New Hampshire. As a performer, Cruz has many strikes against him: a mannered smarminess that permeates almost everything he says, an unpleasant voice that grates like a buzzsaw, and a face like a character actor from a 1960s sitcom. Visually he's a cross between Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney on Green Acres) and Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster on The Munsters), without the comedic luster. Does Cruz have any idea how tone-deaf he sounds to audiences who do not share his views? Asked by moderator David Muir whether waterboarding qualifies as torture, Cruz opined that it was not, then added: "I would not bring it back in any widespread use." Which is good to know.
In the end, this debate was not so much about winners and also-rans as it was about the one clear loser: Marco Rubio. If Rubio had not shown so much promise earlier in the campaign, the loss would seem less momentous. But it is rare, and a little unnerving, to watch a candidate with such innate talent undergo a circuitry malfunction on live TV. Rubio did not spill any coffee or shatter any mugs in New Hampshire, but he may as well have.