Pundits pound Rubio over debate, but he's not always so scripted

In a snowy backwoods town in New Hampshire, Marco Rubio was sounding nothing like the man who repeated the same debate answer four times.

It was the afternoon after the ABC debate, and 300 people in a Hudson school auditorium were paying rapt attention as Rubio weaved attack lines, policy wonkery and personal anecdotes into a seamless narrative. And when he got to his usual finale—how his parents “came here with nothing,” became a bartender and a maid, and only in America could he run for the highest office in the land—well, he struck the right emotional notes.

But this is not the Rubio you see on television. It’s not the way he comes across in interviews and debates. In those settings, he can seem repetitive and robotic. And that’s why using the same lines about President Obama as Chris Christie hammered him was deemed so damaging. It feeds the media’s narrative about Rubio the robot.

The pundits acted as though Rubio had utterly imploded—some of the same pundits who assured us how much momentum he had gained from a third-place finish in Iowa. “Rubio Chokes,” declared the Boston Herald. Politico’s “insiders” concluded he had “crashed and burned.”

It was a rough night, no question. But I suspect it will blow over quickly. Don’t voters assume that most politicians memorize canned lines and zingers in a debate? Rubio didn’t make a factual blunder or forget the third agency he planned to abolish; he kept insisting, verbatim, that Obama was intentionally undermining the country. Average viewers don’t always score these things like the commentariat class. They assume politicians memorize their zingers.

Since the knock on Rubio is that he seems young and is just a first-term senator—although Ted Cruz is the same age and came to Washington two years after Rubio—he may have overcompensated by trying to be utterly disciplined. He may feel he has little margin for error. Message discipline is a strength in a presidential campaign, but not if it drains the candidate of personality.

Rubio’s stump speech at the school contained many of his standard lines; indeed, reporters covering him tell me they can recite the speech word for word. He talked about uniting the Republican Party and the conservative movement. He talked about ObamaCare and overregulation and securing the border. He talked about Benghazi and how Hillary Clinton isn’t even qualified to be president.

He declined to make a sympathetic nod even when asked about police brutality against minorities, saying he is “sick of reading articles about how the police are doing this or that wrong.”

But the Florida lawmaker also leavened his speech, and the Q & A, with humor and personality. He was amused by protestors dressed as Spider-Man and Batman and kept coming back to that, saying he would even cut their taxes. He joked that he wasn’t wearing his infamous high-heeled boots.

When Rubio spoke of the economy, he said he had “lived paycheck to paycheck.” When he spoke of student debt, he recalled having struggled with more than $100,000 in student loans. When he spoke of protecting Social Security, he said that people like his mother deserved their benefits—but that the program would go bankrupt if it wasn’t reformed for retirees a decade from now.

And he was capable of surprising. When asked about the criminal justice system, he owned up to a Washington Post report about being arrested at 18 for drinking beer in a park. While Rubio joked that he wasn’t condoning such behavior, he said he wasn’t prosecuted, but some kid who stole a belt at Macy’s could end up with a permanent record that would ruin his ability to get a job.

There are other talented politicians in this GOP field. Chris Christie has given spellbinding answers about how the scourge of drug abuse claimed the life of a friend. Cruz can speak like a fiery preacher, the occupation of his father. Donald Trump can be both mesmerizing and entertaining at his rallies.

The enigma of Rubio’s candidacy is that his natural eloquence often seems scripted. Depending on the outcome today in New Hampshire, it’s a puzzle that Rubio may have limited time to solve.