NASHUA, New Hampshire—“For a brief fleeting moment I was a Rubio supporter,” said an older man named Bob in the parking lot of Nashua Community College in Nashua, New Hampshire, “But that debate last night really put the nail in the coffin for me.” Gov. John Kasich had just held a modest town hall at the school, and Bob was holding a bundle of lawn signs for the Ohio governor, a new convert to the Kasich message of balanced budgets and conservative reform.
Sen. Marco Rubio, as we know, had a terrible Saturday. He didn’t just stumble, he sowed doubt in his ability to perform at the highest levels of American politics, bolstering critics who blast the young Florida senator as callow, shallow, and without a core. The question is how many other Granite State Republicans share Bob’s concern for the candidate who last week looked liked the one most likely to unite establishment voters.
At a stop in Londonderry on Sunday—just a short drive from the Manchester Regional Airport—Rubio went to work reassuring New Hampshire voters. In a rally held in the gym of the local high school, Rubio didn’t shy away from his robotic repetition of talking points at Saturday night’s debate. Instead, he leaned into his point, declaring that yes, Barack Obama “knows what he’s doing.” “The next four years are going to be worse than the last seven if Bernie Sanders gets elected,” said Rubio, emphasizing the point. At this point, the audience clapped and someone shouted “feel the Bern!” Rubio responded. “You like the Bern? Well the Bern’s a socialist. I don’t want to be a socialist country. You want to be socialist? Move to Scandinavia. Move to Venezuela. There’s like 80 socialist countries in the world—move to a socialist country. We want to be America.”
From there, Rubio went into a version of his stump speech, promising conservative solutions, blasting Democrats, and tying it to his biography, to his father, and to his notion of the things that make America unique. “What makes us special are the millions of people who aren’t rich, who are just working hard and sacrificing so they can be happy and give their kids a chance to do all the things they never could,” he said. “We are special because that’s been possible here, and very rare everywhere else. And whether or not we remain special will be determined by whether or not that’s still true.”
From here, Rubio moved from quiet to loud, and made his final jab at the other side. “If we stay on the road we are on now; if we stay on the road Barack Obama has put us on; if we stay on the road Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton want to keep us on, we will lose that. The American dream will be lost. We will still be a rich and powerful country, but we will not be special anymore.”
This riff, in its way, is a testament to Obama’s success. Unlike 2012, when Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates could slam the White House for unemployment and sluggish wages, the economy in the second term of the Obama administration has been on a steady upswing. Unemployment is falling, wages are growing, and the problems—like low and declining labor force participation—don’t lend themselves to easy soundbytes.
In the face of this stronger, improving economy, an economic pitch won’t work. And so Rubio doesn’t make it. Instead, he sets his sights on other concerns. His pitch has less to do with your pocketbook, and more to do with your safety. (“How can the world be growing more dangerous, but our military weaker?”) It has less to do with your job or your boss, and more to do with what you believe about your country.
For Rubio backers, this is why he’s their top choice, even after Saturday’s debate or the questions about his experience and fitness for the Oval Office. “I think some of the people who have the most experience haven’t really done anything,” said Vanessa, a local who was there with her son. “I think sometimes you need fresh ideas; someone who hasn’t been corrupted by the people around them.”
“You’re not going to find the perfect candidate,” said Joe, who came to see Rubio from Massachusetts. “You have to look at what you align mostly with.” He wasn’t too concerned about Rubio’s debate performance, given the quality of his answers on foreign policy in the latter part of Saturday’s debate. “His answers on national security—I don’t think he’s matched up there.”
It is a truism that every political rally for every politician is filled with people who truly believe their candidate will beat the odds and win the election. Last week, at an event for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa, I spoke with a voter who came from Nebraska to see the governor and work for his campaign. He was convinced that Iowa voters would back Huckabee, and that Huckabee would make it to the top.
Rubio has these supporters, too. The difference is there’s still a chance. And don’t forget: Despite Saturday’s performance, Rubio is talented. No, he doesn’t relish attention like Sen. Ted Cruz, command policy like Jeb Bush, or simply dominate a room like Christie. But his jokes come easy. He looks earnest. He seems sincere.
That last point is important. On the question of American exceptionalism and national greatness, he has the devotion of a true believer, and he wants you to feel it, too. And so he talks fast and paces around the small stage, never quite stopping, not as if he’s in a hurry to leave but as if he’s in a hurry to convert you. To make you a soldier in the war, as he sees it, for America’s soul.
In a more conventional year, this could have sparkled. As it stands, it falls short. While Rubio wants to fight a kind of spiritual battle, his chief rival in New Hampshire, Donald Trump, wants to fight an actual battle against actual enemies. Whether it’s Muslims or immigrants or police protesters, Trump offers a litany of living, breathing targets—scapegoats for national problems, vessels for anger and resentment. Against that, it’s hard to see how Rubio prevails.