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Rubio And Cruz Targeted In GOP Debate


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Last night's Republican debate on ABC News was downright raucous. From the off-balance introduction of the candidates to the aggressive attacks on Marco Rubio, NPR's Mara Liasson has this report from New Hampshire, just days before voters there go to the polls.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Starting now, the Republicans debate.



MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: At that point, the camera shows Ben Carson standing in the wings as a stagehand desperately motions him to come out, but he doesn't budge.


DAVID MUIR: About Kasich?

LIASSON: After that chaotic beginning, the fireworks began. The three governors - Kasich, Bush and Christie - were fighting for survival. All of them needed to stop a surging Rubio from emerging as the establishment leader. Christie led the charge, repeating his campaign trail criticism that Rubio was a lightweight, good at giving a polished speech, but not much else.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: I like Marco Rubio, and he's a smart person and a good guy. But he simply does not have the experience to be president of United States and make these decisions. We've watched it happen, everybody, for the last seven years. The people of New Hampshire are smart. Do not make the same mistake again.

LIASSON: Rubio, supposedly, was prepared for this.


MARCO RUBIO: I think the experience is not just what you did, but how it worked out. Under Chris Christie's governorship of New Jersey, they've been downgraded nine times in their credit rating. But I would add this, let's dispel with that this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don't want to be like the rest of the world.

LIASSON: And that, Christie said, was exactly his point.


CHRISTIE: 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 his advisers gave him.


LIASSON: It got worse. After being attacked by Christie for robotically repeating chunks of his stump speech, Rubio repeated them again.


RUBIO: Chris, your state got hit by a massive snowstorm two weeks ago. You didn't even want to go back. They had to shame you into going back and then you stayed there for 36 hours and then he left and came back to campaign. Those are the facts.


RUBIO: Here's the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true.

CHRISTIE: There it is.

RUBIO: He knows exactly what he's doing.

CHRISTIE: There it is, the memorized 25-second speech.

LIASSON: Rubio was rattled. He continued to recite that line about Barack Obama over and over so many times that countless mashups of his repetitions exploded on the Internet. Ben Carson came to the debate with a bone to pick. On the day of the Iowa caucuses, the Cruz campaign had sent out messages saying that Carson was suspending his campaign. That wasn't true, and Carson has been furious at Cruz ever since.


BEN CARSON: It gives us a very good example of certain types of Washington ethics. Washington ethics basically says if it's legal, you do what you need to do in order to win. That's not my ethics.

LIASSON: Cruz was contrite.


TED CRUZ: When this transpired, I apologized to him then and I do so now. Ben, I'm sorry.

LIASSON: John Kasich, like the other governors, was making his last stand in New Hampshire. And last night, he made a pitch to the state's independents who can vote in either party's primary.


JOHN KASICH: And then the long-term prospects gets bleak. We have to solve problems in America by coming together - Republicans and Democrats, Americans first, party and ideology second...

LIASSON: One surprise last night was that none of the candidates took on Donald Trump - except for Jeb Bush, who's stood up to him before. This time, the subject with the legal principle of eminent domain, which Trump says he loves but many conservatives hate.


JEB BUSH: What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City. That is not public purpose.


BUSH: That is downright wrong.


DONALD TRUMP: Jeb wants to be - he wants to be a tough guy.

BUSH: How tough is it to take (unintelligible) property from an elderly woman?

TRUMP: A lot of times - let me talk. Let me talk. Quiet.


LIASSON: Trump knew the audience wasn't with him, so he turned the boos into an indictment of the establishment.


TRUMP: That's all of his donors and special interests out there.

BUSH: (Laughter).


TRUMP: So - that's what - and by the way, let me just tell you, we needed tickets. You can't get them. You know who has the tickets for the - I'm talking about to the television audience - donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money.


TRUMP: 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 public. I don't want their money. I don't need their money, and I'm the only one up here that can say that.

LIASSON: Trump was less a brawler than a boxer. No wild punches this time, but some carefully placed jabs. Despite his loss last week in Iowa, last night, Trump acted like a confident front-runner. New Hampshire voters are famous for deciding late, and recent polls show less than half of them say they've definitely decided on a candidate. On Tuesday, they'll go to the polls and winnow the GOP field a little more. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Manchester, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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