“We have to stop saying that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing! He knows what exactly what he’s doing! He wants to change America! He thinks it has too much power!” On the main stage at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire, in the latest Republican primary debate on Saturday night, Marco Rubio was losing it, and losing it big time. The junior senator from Florida, the boy wonder nominated as the great tanned hoped of the Republican mainstream, was having a meltdown. He’d got the call early on, to rebut the attack ads playing on high rotation on all stations, saying that he had no achievements.

That’s tough, because he has no achievements. Even Obama had created a cross-the-floor bill, on nuclear disarmament, during his brief Senate tenure. Rubio is confined to saying he had “defended the people of Florida against big government” or some such, which gave Chris Christie an in to go him, and go him good, telling him he was simply not experienced enough to be president. Rubio then hacked into Christie’s record running New Jersey, and gave his Obama spiel.

Christie then shot him out of the air with this:

“I think he mentioned me and my record in there, so I think I get a chance to respond. You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this. That’s what Washington, D.C. does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorised 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”

(APPLAUSE)

Boom! Right out of the sky. Rubio then responded to this accusation of being scripted by … repeating the Obama riff again. And a third time. Which got booing. When he repeated it later for a fourth time, there was a murmur of near anguish from the studio audience, a visceral response to being taken for idiots. The junior senator looked like boy wonder. What was he playing at?

There were other fun moments at the last debate before the primary vote on Tuesday, but this was the most striking and significant among them. Christie is fighting for his life here, and he has found it hard to be taken seriously, in part because, as every day passes, he comes more and more to resemble Fred Flintstone, the full Hanna-Barbera. But he shot Rubio down this time, a desperate move to get his vote up a few per cent .

Whether Christie will benefit from it remains to be seen, but it may well throw Rubio’s — and the party’s — plan to defeat Trump and Ted Cruz into disarray. Trump is currently polling anything from 10 to 20 points ahead of Rubio for the New Hampshire vote — and has done so for the last 70 polls, going back into ’15. If Trump loses, polling is broken-beyond-broken. Should he win as expected, the margin by which he does becomes crucial. The vote aggregated in Iowa, behind Rubio. It may now disaggregate here.

Both Ohio governor John Kasich, and Jeb Bush — still amazingly alive — had good nights. Bush managed to ping Donald Trump on “eminent domain” — the compulsory purchase of property, which Trump supports but Republicans hate. “Eminent domain is essential for any country, especially for this country,” said Trump before being reminded by Bush that he had last used it to try and pull down an old woman’s terrace house so he could extend a car park in Atlantic City. The exchange gave us the one old-skool Trumpesque moment of the night when he dismissed Jeb with a wave of the hand twice, with a sort of gesture that, in other contexts, could only be described as “pansy”. As a result of such waves, men have ended in the cement beneath a pier in Governor Chris Christie’s fine state.

“‘He wants to be a tough guy … it’s not a good look for you, shhhh, I’m talking now,” Trump taunted Bush, but the audience wasn’t with him and he got boos. “Those are his donors and supporters,” the Donald expostulated, “we tried to get tickets, we couldn’t get any.” He’s fast, is Trump. It didn’t play well with the crowd, but nearly 14 million people watched the debate, among them, who knows?

The debate was notable for many other things: the near total-absence of anything resembling an economic plan, aside from Kasich, Christie and Bush saying how they’d turned their states around, and will do the same for the nation; and Trump saying how everyone was “stoopid” and he was going to negotiate much better trade deals; the absence of any discussion of the poor aside from Trump’s comment, vis-a-vis healthcare, that “we can’t just let people die in the street”, another example of the paradox that Trump is often the only one to recognise that the poor and low-income exist; the usual hysterical exceptionalism, which was unknown 20 years ago, and is choking now — “We want to save the greatest country in the history of the world,” said Rubio, riffing on the theme, and everyone did something much like that. Finally, just in case anyone was getting too relaxed, the foreign policy section showed a tendency towards creeping fascism. Ted Cruz would carpet bomb Islamic State “but I’m not talking about bombing civilians. They now have a facility called ‘Jihad University’. Why is that still standing?” Probably because it’s four rooms above a bakery, occupied by six Syrian families, said no one.

Trump was worried that Islamic State was “mediaeval, we haven’t seen anything like it … so we have to do a lot more than waterboarding”. “Ah, you’re aware that US law now defines anything more than waterboarding as torture?” the local news panelist asked, a little out of depth. That did not appear to be a problem, for anyone except Cruz. The whole thing is like whack-a-mole. Every candidate has about 15% of human decency, and pops up to say “uh, that would be wrong” occasionally. Together, they add up to a whole good human being. It’s worth noting that everyone on stage, except for Christie, would have been considered of the hard right of the party at one time — now the Tea Party favourite Rubio is the middle ground. And Christie will be gone after Tuesday.

The debate may have dealt a blow to Rubio and the party machine, but it doesn’t seem to have done any damage to Trump. By now, the party is resigned to that. They’re now convinced that Trump will either storm through the primaries or grab a mountain of delegates, or that the polling is wildly inaccurate and he won’t get many at all, but in neither case is there anything they can do a about it. They believe he won’t get enough delegates to clinch the nomination before convention, and at that point they’ll bypass him. Which is where Rubio comes in. Which is why he’ s now running as if he were the candidate, and running against the Democrats. By building up Obama as a significant figure rather than an incompetent, he builds himself him, answers the criticism that he, like Obama, is too inexperienced to run the joint. On the evidence of his flustered performance this weekend, they may be right.

However, he may get a pass. There’s three more days of frenetic coverage, with each candidate doing three or four stops a day, except for Whacky Ben Carson who has confirmed nothing other than his results-watch party, which was announced as occurring on Sunday, the day it was posted, which suggests that his office is so incompetent they can’t operate Google diary. Far from the stupidest thing that has happened in the primary, it wasn’t even the stupidest thing that Ben Carson did in the primary.

In the debate, when he was announced, the backstage cam showed him striding down the wings — and then stopping, gormless, as he was not announced a second time. To be fair, the doltish local station were mostly to blame — they forgot to announce Kasich entirely. Rubio had to announce him — but, until explicitly asked to “come out now”, Carson would have stayed there through the whole debate. And done better for himself. That will help. So will the Superbowl, on now — some sort of kickabout game put on between these really cool ads, and it had the same effect on Americans as the penlight on retiring agents in Men In Black. Tomorrow morning it will begin over, everything wiped, like the falling snow currently erasing the town outside my window, the espresso joint. circa 1995, a cheque-cashing facility and a Dunkin’ Donuts beside the abandoned railway station, all fading into white.

Peter Fray

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