Marco Rubio must have spent Sunday waiting for the latest polls, waiting for television figures, waiting to see how much damage has been done to his campaign.

The Florida senator went on stage in New Hampshire for the latest candidate debate on Saturday night, buoyed by the momentum of his third-place finish in Iowa which brought a number of endorsements from prominent Republican figures.

He was the surging candidate.

A good second-place finish in the first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday and he would certainly be the anointed establishment candidate. And a good performance in the debate would help seal the deal.

But for the first 40 minutes he must have wished he was anywhere else.

It wasn't that it was a bad night - it was awful.


READ MORE: Rubio takes fire at US Republican debate


In an exchange that quickly went viral, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dismantled the way he answered questions.

It started with a question from the moderator. 

Was Rubio just a good talker with nothing to show for it? - a constant line of attack for Republicans on President Barack Obama. 

Rubio was ready, he was prepared and he went on the offensive: "Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world."

This is where Christie stepped in. The New Jersey Governor claimed Rubio didn’t have the experience to be president or to make the big decisions required of the office. Rubio hit back, attacking Christie's record in his state and then repeating almost line for line his Obama attack.

In previous debates, things had moved on. But if Christie wants to be successful in New Hampshire, he has to tear down Rubio - and so he highlighted the Rubio technique of answering.

He told the audience and the millions at home: "There it is, we get the drive-by shot with incorrect and incomplete information, then the memorised 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him."

Rubio responded by incredibly repeating the Obama line, not once but twice. He simply reinforced the Christie attack that he wasn't smart enough or experienced enough to think on his feet but was simply reciting points that would make a great soundbite and had probably been focus-tested with potential voters.

It was perhaps made worse by Christie drawing attention to it - proving to everyone the emperor has no clothes: "There it is. The memorised 25-second speech. There it is, everybody ..."

If Christie wanted to alert the New Hampshire public to his allegation that Rubio has a youthful appeal and nothing else, he was ably assisted by Rubio himself. He senselessly walked into the trap and was swallowed whole.

To be fair, Rubio recovered a little later in the debate, but the damage was done. Every response had the audience thinking: "Have I heard this from him before? Is this what he really thinks?"

But while Rubio may be damaged, there's no guarantee that votes he might lose will go directly to Christie.  He is battling with Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush for a select part of the electorate. 

All three have banked on kick-starting their campaign in New Hampshire and all three are hopeful of doing well. They all need a good finish here to go on. They are seen as the other establishment figures ready to take the fight to the upstart outsiders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

By tearing down the surging Rubio, they may constrict the field once more, putting little between them in the final polls. 

And that might offer a clearer run to victory for the men they really want to stop.

Source: Al Jazeera