The Big Loser Of The Night

by Chris Tognotti

On Saturday night, the Republican presidential candidates took to the stage in New Hampshire for the eighth debate of their primary season, this one hosted by ABC News. It was an undoubtedly big night for the trio of candidates who've emerged as clear contenders over the past several weeks ― Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio in particular ― and while they might be clinging to impossible dreams, it was big for the also-rans too. But one major candidate in particular fouled up big time. So, who was the GOP debate loser?

While it can be a tough thing to determine who the big winner is in one of these things, it's often a little easier to see who came out on the short end. Debates like these are judged on countless factors in the hearts and minds of viewers, and it isn't always about facts ― body language, tone, composure, that occasional fighting spirit, all of can weigh heavily on who gets a boost, and who slumps away defeated.

On Saturday night, however, after a long couple hours of questioning by ABC News' David Muir and Martha Raddatz, the loser heading into Tuesday's primary was laid bare: that's right, it was Florida senator Marco Rubio.

There were two moments on Saturday that brought tensions to their highest points ― one exchange between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump about imminent domain, which got very heated indeed, and a protracted, lengthy clash between Rubio and Chris Christie over Rubio's qualifications, and his reliance on "memorized 25-second speeches."

It's no surprise that Christie would want to take some shots at Rubio, given that they're ostensibly fighting for the same kinds of Republican voters ― less rude than Trump, less radical than Cruz, but hungry for a little more zest than, say, John Kasich offers.

But you couldn't have predicted that Christie would wage quite such a perfect attack, nor that Rubio would handle it as poorly as he did. Like I said, there's the factual side of things, and then there's the intangible side ― non-verbal cues, a facial tic here or there, a telling silence, or maybe an awkward pause. And throughout his confrontations with Christie, Rubio looked overwhelmed and completely outgunned.

In particular, Christie's attacks on Rubio's extremely rehearsed style were brutal ― he twice pointed out when Rubio resorted to one of his "memorized 25-second speeches," in this case a line about President Obama 'knowing exactly what he's doing,' followed by a litany of perceived complaints about the direction of the country. Rubio actually touched on this theme four separate times, even after Christie called him out for it. Sometimes, being too on-message can hurt you.

Of course, the real measure of who won and lost will be told when voting day rolls around on Tuesday. The people of New Hampshire have gotten a good long look at these folks, and there probably isn't much more in the way of surprises coming. But on this night at least, it sure looked like Chris Christie took Marco Rubio to the metaphorical woodshed, and there couldn't have been a worse time for that to happen.