The Fatal Three Minutes

Marco Rubio finished a highly disappointing fifth in the New Hampshire primary. Five days ago, his popularity was soaring and he looked like an almost certain second-place finisher. Then came three bad minutes in Saturday night’s debate when he was being attacked by Chris Christie, and Rubio’s momentum came to a screeching halt. This graphic showing the Real Clear Politics poll averages tells the story. Donald Trump is the blue line at the top. Marco Rubio is the pink or purple line that was rising rapidly, then took a fall beginning Saturday night.

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Rubio peaked at around 16.5% in the polls, and finished with about 11%, in a virtual tie with Jeb Bush. His decline was attributable entirely, I think, to Saturday’s debate and Christie’s ongoing attacks.

In that regard, Christie eagerly collaborated with the Democratic Party press. The Democrats are determined to damage Rubio, whom they see as the Republicans’ most formidable candidate, and Christie happily obliged. He helped the press to keep Rubio’s three bad minutes in the news, and in return, his face was on television. When have Democratic news outlets been so anxious to hear what Christie had to say? I can’t think of another occasion.

Christie’s disloyalty to his party didn’t do him much good. He announced today that he is dropping out of the race, as did Carly Fiorina.

For Rubio, it is on to South Carolina and Nevada. It remains to be seen whether the damage in the New Hampshire debate will be limited to New Hampshire, or whether his three minutes with Christie have done long-term damage to his national standing. Last night, Rubio gave a good speech to supporters in which he took responsibility for his disappointing showing:

I want you to understand something. Our disappointment tonight is not on you, it’s on me. It is on me. I did not do well on Saturday night — listen to this: that will never happen again. That will never happen again. Let me tell you why it will never happen again. It’s not about me, it’s not about this campaign, it is about this election. It’s about what’s at stake in this election.

All of this is irrelevant, however, unless someone can find a way to slow down Donald Trump. The other candidates have spent months jockeying to be the alternative to Trump. The idea was that at some point, Trump’s campaign would implode and the nomination would go to whoever was still standing as the alternative.

It seems clear now that this strategy won’t work. Trump isn’t going away. It is hard to imagine a scenario that would cause his campaign to collapse. (What, he might say something dumb or inflammatory? He might be sternly chastised by Democratic Party reporters? Or some peccadillo could come to light?) So the remaining candidates are going to have to go after Trump and convince voters that they are the the best in the race, not the best other than Trump.