Fight Night

Trump Holds Steady as Second-Place Rubio Gets Roughed Up

The Republican front-runner's closest rival in New Hampshire, Rubio, turned in his first shaky debate performance.

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Rubio’s Rivals Hit Him Hard Over Leadership at GOP Debate

Donald Trump, far from humbled by a second-place finish in the first presidential nominating contest, bet again on his forceful personality as he battled a combative audience in New Hampshire just days before the state's crucial first-in-the-nation primary.

But it may not matter. Trump's closest competitor, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, turned in his first shaky debate performance of the nomination season at the worst possible time. 

Rubio, who was starting to finally coalesce the party's anti-Trump vote, was flummoxed in the make-or-break debate by criticism from rivals that he's over-programmed. He seemed to prove their point by repeating canned answers.

The result means that Rubio, after a week of surging in the polls, squandered an opportunity to close the gap with Trump and probably failed to distance himself from a trio of governors who are battling to overtake him. 

For party loyalists looking to take down Trump and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, there may be nowhere else to turn as none of the governors turned in a break-out performance.

"It may not change the race that much," said Bruce Haynes, founding partner at Purple Strategies, which conducts polls in New Hampshire. "This debate seems to have created a jump ball."

That may depend on how Trump's tussle with the audience plays in the state. In Iowa, Trump was ahead in the polls, but finished in second place to Cruz four days after skipping the debate in the state.

The New York businessman had until recently upended New Hampshire tradition by largely avoiding the type of retail political events—town halls, house parties and one-on-one meetings with voters—that are the major ingredient to winning the state's primaries.

At the debate, Trump was booed by the audience during a tussle with Bush over eminent domain, the government's taking of private property for the public good. 

"Jeb wants to be a tough guy tonight," Trump said to Bush. When Bush tried to shoot back, Trump interrupted. 

"Let me talk—quiet," Trump said, triggering boos from the audience.

Trump then turned his attention to the crowd. "That's all of his donors and special interests out there," Trump said, and the crowd booed again.

"The reason they're not loving me is that I don't want their money," Trump said. "I'm going to do the right thing for the American public. I don't want their money, I don't need their money, and I'm the only one up here that can say that."

The crowd of 1,000 people included fewer than 70 donors to the Republican National Committee, a spokesperson for the group said after the debate.

"We have just more than 900 tickets, more than 200 were given to the colleges," said Sean Spicer, the RNC's communication director. "They were the largest recipient and there weren't more than 70 RNC donors there. Every candidate got the same amount of tickets."

Steve Duprey, New Hampshire's Republican national committeeman, said at least 600 people in the crowd were party activists, not donors. He said the crowd included supporters of every campaign.

"People were aggravated," Duprey, who was in the audience, said in an interview after the debate. "Donald Trump is good at saying what he thinks, and it probably played well on TV, but it did not go over well with these hard working rank-and-file Republicans."

Bush, who fell in the polls after battling with Trump in debates, finally appeared to get the better of the former reality TV show host.

The former governor has shown signs of life in recent days on the campaign trail in the state, drawing larger-than-usual crowds, but the one-time front-runner continues to battle anxieties about a third Bush administration.

“What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City,” Bush said. “That is not public purpose, that is downright wrong.”

Earlier in the debate, Rubio, perhaps his party's most gifted communicator, struggled to defend an immigration bill he co-authored and walked into criticism from rivals that relies too much on talking points. The criticism from Christie and Bush suggests that the first-term senator isn't prepared for the White House.

Despite fielding similar attacks all week while campaigning in the state, Rubio seemed unprepared for the attacks on Saturday night. When asked about the comparison to Obama, 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," said Rubio, who is seeking the presidency after less than one term in the Senate, as Obama did. "He is trying to change this country."

When Christie criticized Rubio's answer, the Florida senator responded by saying again that it is not true Obama "doesn't know what he's doing," Rubio said. "He knows exactly what he's doing."

"There it is, there it is," Christie interjected. "The memorized 25-second speech. There it it is everybody."

Visibly rattled, Rubio reached for his water.

With assistance from Mark Niquette and Kevin Cirilli.

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