Rubio’s Debate Malfunction Undermines His Appeal

Scott Greer Contributor
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Chris Christie finally landed a devastating blow against [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] Saturday night.

During a heated exchange between the two candidates at ABC’s primetime debate, the governor was able to unravel one of the senator’s essential characteristics — Rubio’s ability to recite perfectly crafted talking points.

While this trait has so far worked to Rubio’s advantage in the race, on Saturday night, the memorization hurt him bad when he repeated the same line four times in response to hardly related discussions. And the crowd certainly noticed it after Christie blasted members of Congress for relying on the “25 second stump speech.” (RELATED: Christie Smokes A Cuban, Shreds Rubio’s ‘Memorized, 25 Second Speeches’)

“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,” Rubio said, or some variant of, multiple times during the first hour of debate.

The third time he said it Christie made sure the audience understood it was just a rehearsed “stump speech,” which of course bolstered his complaint about senators being no substance politicians.

The fourth time Rubio repeated the line followed Christie criticizing the Floridian for flip-flopping on immigration. What relation Obama knowing “exactly what he’s doing” and Rubio’s change of heart on comprehensive amnesty is not at all clear. The debate crowd didn’t like it and booed him before he finished the line.

Since finishing third place in Iowa (albeit, a rather close third), the junior senator from Florida was thought to be going into New Hampshire with the strong chance of winning the contest. Many in the chattering class began to dust off their old predictions that Rubio was sure to win the GOP nomination and his ever-devoted fan base began spinning his Iowa performance as an absolute victory.

Now it seems the positive momentum might’ve hit a major snag with Marco’s major malfunction. Instead of appearing as the charismatic conservative orator of the new millennium, Rubio looked like an overtly rehearsed, inauthentic politico. That’s the last impression Rubio wants to have going into Tuesday.

For those who might think one debate performance can’t seriously hurt (or help) a candidate, look back at history. There’s the famous 1960 debate where Richard Nixon looked pasty and old in comparison with the young and make-upped Jack Kennedy, which is often cited in your standard high school history books as a deciding factor in the race.

More recently, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich saw their numbers drastically change following debate performances in 2012. Perry’s status as a serious contender was ruined by his inability to name three agencies he would cut as president at a November 2011 debate. Gingrich’s surprising victory in South Carolina was seen partially as a result of him dramatically striking back at the mainstream media during a debate shortly before that state’s primary.

Already, initial reports have found many attendees at Rubio’s rallies were troubled by what they saw at the last debate — and those are the people taking time out of their weekend to hear him speak.

Coupled with the attention circling around his lack of accomplishments in the Senate (which was spurred on in part by Rubio endorser Rick Santorum), the robot-like debate response could very well lead to a disappointing result in New Hampshire for Rubio and potentially hurt him in states further on in the race. (RELATED: Santorum Says Rubio Has No Accomplishments)

That’s because it reinforces an image of Rubio his supporters and many in the media have neglected to highlight — he’s a lightweight career politician. In an election cycle where both parties have taken a historic interest in outsiders and non-politicians, the junior senator’s lack of professional experience in a job outside of politics serves as a liability.

So far, Rubio has managed to overcome the career politician image through strong debate performances and the boosterism of many within the conservative movement and right-leaning media.

Both factors reinforce the image of Rubio as a great orator who’s somehow capable of bringing crowds to tears.

And that’s his main draw. It is true that Rubio has no significant accomplishments to tout from his time in the Senate — except for comprehensive immigration reform. The senator, out of political calculation, has backed away from that effort. Unlike [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] who loves to tout his senatorial bomb throwing as an asset, Rubio’s Senate career doesn’t have much to offer to either the establishment or the disaffected grassroots. (RELATED: Gang Of Eight Defines Marco Rubio’s Conservatism)

That’s why his oratory is so central to his appeal. When conservative fans of his write panegyrics to their favorite candidate, they always focus on Rubio’s speaking ability. They say his great speeches will be able to reach new demographics and electrify Republican core constituencies. His rhetoric is “aspirational” and Reagan-esque, and it demonstrates a through knowledge of affairs both domestic and international.

To drive home the point, Rubio supporters will say likening Rubio to Barack Obama is actually a compliment. They embrace the concept of Rubio being just like an Obama in terms of charisma and verbal prowess. He’s even a minority like the president, too!

But his debate malfunction undermines this very appeal. Portraying the great eloquence of Rubio as nothing more than canned talking points is the most devastating line of attack on him.

If voters start to think of Rubio’s speeches as having more in common with a 5th grader reciting the Gettysburg Address and less with Reagan’s “City on a Hill,” there goes his draw. It also bolsters The Onion satirizing his birthplace as occurring in a “closed-door conservative think tank strategy session in 2010.”

It doesn’t help that here’s some merit to the idea of Rubio repeating things from memory which he has no deep understanding of.

Unlike Obama who would speak slowly and confidently in his speeches, Rubio seems to be on a mad dash to blurt out everything his advisers told him to say. It’s just like that grade schooler trying to hurry through Lincoln’s words in order to get the passing grade.

On the other hand, there was no doubt Obama was a committed to his ideology and — as The Atlantic’s resident conservative David Frum pointed out during an analysis of Rubio’s debate performance — there was a certain depth to the then-presidential candidate.

As of right now, the same can’t be said of Rubio.

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