Taking fire from all over, Rubio finds himself on defensive after riding high last week

Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla.  (AP)

What a difference a week makes.

Just six days ago, Sen. Marco Rubio was flying high, fresh off a surprisingly strong third-place finish in the Iowa caucus.

Endorsements rained in for the charismatic, photogenic junior lawmaker from Florida.
Now, after what many are depicting as a bungled performance at Saturday’s GOP debate, Rubio finds himself on the defensive.

On Sunday, Rubio sought to downplay his puzzling repetition of a criticism of President Barack Obama at the debate – which played into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s denunciation of the senator’s scripted style – by uttering the same, or similar, lines over and over again.

Rubio on Sunday sought to make light of the repetition by repeating the line, with some variation, that “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

As he did during the debate, Rubio challenged the characterization of the statements as “talking points” and said he was rightfully criticizing Obama’s flawed record.

In an ABC interview on Sunday, Rubio said he would the clip of his repetition of the attack on Obama to keep playing.

“Actually, I would pay them to keep running that clip, because that’s what I believe passionately,” he said.

The derailment of Rubio in the debate, where he at times seemed visibly flustered over Christie’s jabs, threw into question what had been up to then seen as one of his greatest strengths – his ability to stay out of the sparring between candidates in previous debates and stick to discussing his policy ideas and views on various issues.

Now, attacks on Rubio are pouring from nearly all the campaigns, which are seeking to cast him as a mirage, an overrated candidate who crumbles under fire.

“The question of confronting a challenge and sticking with it and having a backbone, if you will — he’s never been challenged in his life in that regard. He’s young,” Bush in an interview with Politico.

Bush faulted Rubio for not defending the controversial immigration bill he helped draft as part of a bipartisan Senate group in 2013. Rubio did, in fact, defend the bill, becoming its virtual face on news shows and press conferences. 

His senate office sent out multiple emails daily seeking to respond to criticism of the bill, to challenge the common perception of “amnesty,” and to say that it was unrealistic not to find a way to bring many of the nation’s estimated 12 million people out of the shadows.

But once it stalled in the House after it passed in the Senate, he essentially stopped talking about it, and eventually began saying that immigration reform had to first address enforcement, and that any measure to fix the system might best be approached in a piecemeal fashion.

“Marco, as gifted as he is, hasn’t had to make a tough choice. The one time he did, which I admired, was the — getting involved in something that was quite controversial,” Bush said to Politico. “He took heat, and he backed away.”

“The immigration deal was he made a decision: ‘My personal ambition trumps doing my job,’” he said. “So, do you want someone whose natural tendency is to pursue ambition, or do you want someone who runs to the fire?”

Bush, who once was Rubio’s mentor and friend, disputed the notion that his fellow Floridian now owns the title of establishment GOP presidential candidate, and that he and others who have been vying to be the anti-Donald Trump and anti-Ted Cruz should step aside because of Rubio’s Iowa finish.

“The Rubio people have made an argument that, ‘I came in third. Everybody else must leave,’” he said. “I’m not buying it. Why should I? ... You know, it’s like come on. You get a bronze, you get a little red ribbon, and everybody is supposed to just — the waters are supposed to part?”

Chris Christie spent Sunday basking in his new-found place in the national spotlight.

"I think the whole race changed last night. Because you know there was a march among the chattering class to anoint Sen. Rubio," Christie said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I think after last night, that's over. So I think there could be four or five tickets out of New Hampshire because the race is so unsettled now."

Poor debate performances don’t always translate into doomed campaigns. The lasting impact on Rubio remains to be seen.

The latest Real Clear Politics poll shows Trump continues to have a large lead, with 34 percent, followed by Rubio and Cruz with 13 percent, Kasich and Bush with 10 percent and Christie with 5 percent.

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