MANCHESTER, N.H. - Fireworks exploded at the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire on Saturday night, with Sen. Marco Rubio under heavy fire from the rivals who are seeking to stunt his momentum ahead of Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary.
The need to score a top spot was evident, particularly from Christie, who went on the offensive early and often and never missed an opportunity to flip a question into an attack against Rubio, who came in third place in the Iowa caucuses, just one point behind second place Trump.
Christie savaged Rubio for being a senator, saying all he thinks about when he wakes up is what kind of speech to give or bill to drop.
He hit back at one of the accomplishments attributed to Rubio – the passage of the Hezbollah Sanctions Act – saying the Florid Republican missed the vote for a bill he has bragged about being instrumental in passing.
“That’s not leadership, that’s truancy,” Christie said.
The New Jersey governor also likened Rubio to President Obama, a first-term senator who became president; accused him of lacking backbone for backing away from the immigration bill he sponsored, and mocked him for being overly scripted.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable,” Christie said. “You just simply haven't.”
Rubio fired back at Christie, accusing him of being delinquent for a recent snowstorm in New Jersey.
But Rubio repeatedly played into Christie’s hands, reciting on four different occasions a talking point about Republicans underestimating Obama. At one point, the audience appeared to boo Rubio for sticking to that script.
“There it is!” Christie declared. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
“He gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points,” Christie added.
The exchange went on for about five minutes, with the other candidates sitting by silently. Most political watchers believed Christie, who repeatedly turned to Rubio, pointed at him and stared him down, got the best of the exchange.
“I want the people at home to think about this,” Christie said at one point. “That's what Washington, D.C., does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what [Rubio’s] advisers gave him.”
Bush immediately piled on when he was asked why he is currently saying that Rubio isn’t prepared to be president, even though in 2012 he said he that Rubio would make a good vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney.
“Mitt picked somebody else,” Bush said, before launching into an argument about why he’s more prepared to lead the country than Rubio is.
"Let's be clear,” Bush continued. “Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician, and he may have the skills to be a President of the United States, but we've tried it the old way with Barack Obama, with soaring eloquence and we got -- we didn't get a leader we got someone who wants to divide the country up.”
Trump, who faces a must-win contest in New Hampshire following a disappointing second place finish in Iowa, made his big return to the center-stage after sitting out the last debate because of his feud with Fox News.
He found a hostile crowd at St. Anselm College on Saturday night.
The billionaire was asked to defend his position on eminent domain, and Bush pounced, accusing Trump of stealing property from and “elderly woman’ to build “limousine parking lots” for his casinos in Atlantic City.
“How tough is it to take property from an elderly woman?” Bush asked.
Trump repeatedly sought to interrupt Bush, saying “he wants to be a tough guy,” and at one point instructing his rival to quiet down. That provoked jeers from the crowd, which Trump inflamed by insulting the people in the audience.
“That’s all of his donors and special interests out there,” Trump said looking into the audience. “By the way, we needed tickets, we don’t get them. By the way you know who gets the tickets for the television audience? Donors, special interests, the people putting up the money. It is. The RNC told us.”
“We have all donors in the audience,” Trump continued, further inflaming the crowd. “And the reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money. I’m going to do the right thing for the American people I don’t want their money I don’t need their money and I’m the only one up here that can say that.”
ABC News countered online that the audience "consists mostly of New Hampshire residents, including a mix of local college students, guests of the candidates and the media, as well as top national and state Republicans."
Trump's accusations didn’t play well in the audience, but it’s why Trump’s supporters love their candidate.
Other than that exchange, it was a largely risk-free debate for Trump.
Trump eschewed his typically brutish assaults and instead politely pointed out a disagreement he had with Rubio.
“Marco said earlier that President Obama knows exactly what he’s doing,” Trump said. “I disagree, respectfully, with Marco. We have a president who is totally incompetent and has no idea what he’s doing and our country is going to hell.”
Trump then turned to Rubio and asked gently, “is that OK?”
Rubio has largely declined to take Trump head on, and has therefore eschewed many of the attacks that his rivals have absorbed.
The debate kicked off with a few tough moments for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the winner of the Iowa caucuses who is running in second place in New Hampshire despite low expectations for him in the state.
ABC anchor David Muir opened by asking Cruz if he stands by his recent attacks against Trump for not having the right “temperament” to be president.
Cruz declined to follow through on the attack, giving the opening for Trump to deliver a dagger. Cruz, Trump pointed out, had backed down.
“I respect what Ted just said, but if you noticed, he didn’t answer your question,” Trump said. “That’s what’s going to happen with our enemies and the people we compete against. We’re going to win with Trump. We’re going to win with Trump. People back down with Trump and that’s what I like.”
That exchange was followed by another tough moment for Cruz, who was asked to address the controversy over his campaign spreading false rumors ahead of the Iowa caucuses that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race.
Rather than going on the attack, Carson struck back by saying he was hurt that Cruz’s campaign thought so little of him that he’d bow out moments before votes were cast after his volunteers had worked tirelessly on his behalf in Iowa, including one young man who died.
“It gives us a good example of certain types of Washington ethics that basically says, ‘if it’s legal you do what you need to win,’” Carson said. “That’s not my ethics. Mine is ‘you do what’s right.’”
Carson is struggling mightily in the race, but remains beloved by many conservatives.
The Texas Republican apologized directly to Carson and sought to blame confusing reports from CNN, but Carson continued to shame him.
“The bottom line is everyone can see what happened and you can make your own judgment based on that,” Carson said.
Overall though, it was another understated performance for Carson. He had an embarrassing moment at the beginning of the debate when he didn’t hear his name announced to come on stage and stood awkwardly off-stage with the camera on him as candidate after candidate passed him by.
It was also a quiet night for Kasich, who has repeatedly refused to attack his rivals. Kasich was questioned on whether he’s too far to the left of his rivals, as evidence by him winning the endorsements from the editorial boards of papers like the New York Times.
Kasich’s moderation could endear him to the mainstream voters and independents in New Hampshire, but it’s a trait that’s largely left him unloved by grassroots conservatives in the GOP primary.