Marco Rubio's uneven debate performance just days before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary has emboldened a trio of governors seeking to stem his rise in the Republican race for president. But if Rubio's rivals can slow him in New Hampshire, they are likely to leave the GOP with a muddled mix of establishment contenders and no clear favorite to challenge Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
At the heart of the battle between Rubio and Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush is whether the freshman Florida senator has the experience and policy depth to serve as president — or whether he's simply a well-spoken lightweight. Christie unleashed withering attacks against Rubio in Saturday's debate, and the New Jersey governor tripped up Rubio by calling him out in real-time for his reliance on rehearsed talking points.
The morning after, Christie declared the Republican contest a changed race.
"There was a march amongst some in the chattering class to anoint Sen. Rubio," Christie said on CNN's State of the Union. "I think after last night, that's over."
Christie and his fellow governors need that to be the case, given that they've staked their White House hopes on New Hampshire. Without a strong showing, each will face enormous pressure to drop out from Republican Party leaders eager to rally around a single candidate who can challenge Cruz and Trump, the top-two finishers in the lead-off Iowa caucuses.
Trump has held a commanding lead in New Hampshire preference polls for months. Cruz is in the mix with Rubio and the governors, though his campaign is more focused on the Southern states that follow later in the primary calendar.
The prospect of Trump or Cruz winning the GOP nomination has set many Republican leaders on edge, and that anxiousness is only likely to increase should New Hampshire voters leave Rubio and the governors clustered together in the primary results, failing to anoint one as their preferred challenger to the front-runners.
A Monmouth University survey released Sunday, still shows Trump with a commanding double-digit lead over his Republican rivals, with 30 percent of likely Republican primary voters saying they would vote for him. But there's a cluster of candidates statistically tied for second place: Kasich has 14 percent of would be voters, Rubio came in with 13 percent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also had 13 percent, and Cruz had 12 percent support.
While most candidates remained unchanged in their polling numbers from last month's Monmouth survey, Bush jumped nine points since January. The Monmouth survey indicated that just 9 percent of N.H. Republican voters are undecided.
The poll was taken before Saturday's debate, but no other Republican candidates had double digit support.
Rubio emerged from Iowa looking as though he was that candidate, with a third-place finish in Iowa that was stronger than expected. Rival campaigns conceded privately in the days leading up to the debate that he was pulling away from the governors.
But the Florida senator stumbled in Saturday's debate when challenged about his qualifications, repeatedly falling back on a retort meant to distinguish himself from President Barack Obama, who also won the White House as a first-term senator.
For Barbara O'Brien, an undecided voter who had been considering voting for Rubio, it was enough to convince her he wasn't the right choice.
"He kept saying the same thing over and over again," said O'Brien, a 67-year-old from Manchester who is one of New Hampshire's many registered independents. "He didn't look presidential"
GOP voter Judy McKenna, 66, had been leaning toward Rubio, but said she was "disappointed" in his debate performance.
"The governors all made great points about experience, especially Christie, and Rubio did not have any answer to counter that argument," McKenna said.
Rubio acknowledged the criticism during a rally in Londonderry on Sunday morning. He then proceeded to repeat the same line that put him in Christie's crosshairs.
"I'm going to say it again," he told the audience of more than 800 gathered in a school cafeteria. "The reason why these things are troubling is because Barack Obama is the first president, at least in my lifetime, that wants to change the country. Change the country, not fix it."
Rubio senior adviser Todd Harris said the candidate's repetition underscores his laser focus on upending the Obama administration's agenda.
"We're going to continue to attack Barack Obama's record over and over and over again," Harris said. "I don't think there is any Republican primary voter who was watching that debate who was saying I wish he would lay off of Barack Obama."
Seeking to counter the notion of a misstep, Rubio's campaign said it raised $600,000 during the debate, three times more than it has brought in during previous debates. The fundraising numbers were unverifiable.
The senator's crowds remained large and enthusiastic on Sunday, and some of the many undecided voters who attended his events said they were more bothered by Christie's aggressive demeanor.
"It was tiresome. I've heard it before," said Katherine Bringhurst, a 66-year-old retired office manager. She's undecided heading into Tuesday's election, but leaning toward Rubio.
Maria Tourlitis, an independent from Hudson, decided to vote for Rubio after hearing him speak in her hometown on Saturday. As she greeted the senator after the event, she leaned in and said: "At the next debate, please stand up to Christie."
If Christie's aggressive attacks on Rubio result in his own standing tumbling, it could benefit Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Kasich, the current governor of Ohio. Both stepped back in the debate to allow Christie to take the lead in targeting Rubio, though they were happy to relish in the afterglow.
"He's a great speaker," Bush said of Rubio, his one-time political protégé, on Fox News Sunday. "But he came across as totally scripted and kind of robotic."
Kasich has prided himself on avoiding direct criticism of his rivals during the campaign, and kept up that strategy both in the debate and as he campaigned Sunday.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could win being positive?" Kasich said on Fox News.
Associated Press writer Sergio Bustos contributed to this report from Salem, New Hampshire.