Political fortunes change fast – just ask Marco Rubio. A week ago, he was called the Republican Party's heir apparent. Now, he is being called its laughingstock.
Last Monday, the Florida senator emerged with a stronger-than-expected third-pace finish in Iowa that had the press and pundits speculating about a Rubio nomination.
Since then Rubio has faltered badly with a shaky debate performance Saturday and a series of robotically repeated rehearsed lines that have some calling the GOP candidate "Marco Roboto." The big question for Rubio in New Hampshire and other early voting states: Are his missteps merely a glitch overblown by critics, or will they be his downfall?
The junior senator's troubles began Saturday evening during the eighth GOP debate, when N.J. Gov. Chris Christie delivered a withering attack questioning Rubio's qualifications and accusing him of repeatedly relying on rehearsed talking points.
In response, Rubio pivoted to a seemingly well-rehearsed attack on President Obama – four separate times.
"You see, everybody," Governor Christie said, "There it is. The memorized 25-second speech."
The next morning Christie insisted the Republican contest was 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."
In the following days, Rubio repeated himself again – in Londonderry, N.H., where he uttered the same stock lines he had delivered in the debate.
And again – in Nashua, while lamenting the struggles of raising children with wholesome values in the 21st century "instead of the values they try to ram down our throats."
To be sure, every candidate repeats himself or herself at nearly every campaign stop, purposely delivering a consistent and almost word-for-word speech. It's called staying on message.
But there have been other problems since Iowa. Rubio supporter Rick Santorum struggled, in a live interview, to name any of Rubio's accomplishments. And Rubio had a tense exchange with a gay man in New Hampshire, who asked, "Why do you want to put me back in the closet?"
What does this mean for Rubio? He may be exhausted, under pressure, rattled – all fair for a candidate in his place. But the missteps may prove to be a defining moment in the race. Rubio's strengths – his youth and eloquence – were questioned, and party leaders' worst fears – that Rubio is too inexperienced – may have been confirmed.
"He's a great speaker," former Florida governor and rival Jeb Bush said of Rubio on Fox News Sunday. "But he came across as totally scripted and kind of robotic."
The fear going forward is that Rubio, who has been trying to brand himself as a mainstream candidate, but who has a very conservative record, won't do well in New Hampshire, which has a lot of moderate voters. The Granite State's results could change the narrative of the race and affect the outcome in other early-voting states.
Some critics have launched a “Marco Rubio Glitch” Twitter account, others have dubbed the candidate “Marco Roboto” or “Rubio bot."
"Marco Rubio is in a precarious spot in New Hampshire," said the political forecasting blog FiveThirtyEight.
"Even before Saturday’s debate, Rubio’s hold on second place wasn’t especially secure, and with Rubio, John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush all huddled with support in the low teens or high single digits, even a small post-debate dip could push Rubio from second to third … or fourth … or fifth."
A Monmouth University survey released Sunday had Rubio statistically tied for second place with a number of other candidates. Notably, the poll was taken before Rubio's poor debate performance Saturday.
Nonetheless, political debates have a limited audience and it's possible Rubio's fumble was "a forgivable fluke, one bad moment blown wildly out of proportion by a bloodthirsty press corps," as BuzzFeed put it.
In other words, Rubio still has an opportunity to recover. If he finishes second in New Hampshire (Donald Trump is already assumed to take first place), voters will probably forget about "repeat-gate," and Rubio may be well on his way to fulfilling his so-called 3-2-1 strategy, which calls for him to finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina, presumably sealing his pitch for the nomination.
If he doesn't finish second in New Hampshire, Rubio may need a new strategy.