One of the persistent criticisms of Marco Rubio's presidential candidacy is that he's an overly scripted, unprepared rookie who can't think on his feet and can't say anything beyond the memorized talking points some handler told him to repeat.
With this kind of reputation, the Florida senator is tasked with a simple challenge: prove the detractors are wrong. Last night in New Hampshire, he did the exact opposite.
"[L]et'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...."
Soon after, in response to a different question, Rubio said:
"Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country."
Later, in response to another question, Rubio added:
"Here's the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing."
And soon after, mocked by Chris Christie for repeating his talking points, Rubio once again said:
"We are not facing a president that doesn't know what he's doing. He knows what he is doing."
Just to be absolutely clear, this isn't a joke. All of the above quotes are exact, word-for-word excerpts from the debate transcript
I've watched more debates over the years than I care to admit, but I've never seen anything like this. When it comes to cringe-worthy moments, the only rival that comes to mind is Rick Perry's "oops" moment.
We'll have much more on the debate and its significance tomorrow morning, but in the meantime, it's worth appreciating the fact that the potential fallout from Rubio's failed debate is significant. This is the kind of embarrassment that rattles confidence in a candidate, raising serious doubts about his preparedness for national office.
And nearly as important, it serves as an arrow hitting Rubio where he's most vulnerable.
I'm reminded once more of a piece Erik Eisele, a reporter for the Conway Daily Sun
in New Hampshire, wrote
in December after a 20-minute interview with the Republican candidate. "It was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points," the reporter said. "He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn't come across."
Several years earlier, Jon Chait wrote
, "Do you get the feeling that 'Marco Rubio' is not an actual human being at all but some kind of computer program designed by the Republican Party? Imagine they had the technical know-how to create a candidate like this. What would they come up with? They'd come up with Marco Rubio, a cinematically handsome Latino from Florida who hews to the Tea Party line while spitting out patriotic cliches that sound as if they were programmed like a computer. I'm not saying I'm sure Rubio is a robot. I'm just saying that I want to watch him walk through a metal detector."
Crumbling under pressure on national television is bad. Crumbling under pressure on national television while confirming your detractors' most serious criticisms is much worse.