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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Marco Rubio's debate oops threatens to shift momentum of race



SALEM, N.H. — We've heard Donald Trump swear, insult and offend. We've winced as Jeb Bush flailed during debates. We've wondered on occasion whether Ben Carson was fully awake.

But Marco Rubio gave us the first real oops moment of the 2016 race Saturday night.

"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," Florida's junior senator said after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused him of constantly using the same scripted lines in the debate.

Two minutes later: "Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing," Rubio said.

Two minutes after that: "This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing."

And then 46 minutes later: "I think anyone who believes that Barack Obama isn't doing what he's doing on purpose doesn't understand what we're dealing with here. Okay?" said Rubio, by then perspiring heavily.

This strange episode involving the famously polished Rubio may well turn out to be merely a blip in the presidential primary. But coming just as tens of thousands of New Hampshire residents are choosing candidates for Tuesday's primary, it threatens to be a momentum-shifting moment much like Texas Gov. Rick Perry's crippling brain freeze in 2011, when he forgot the name of a federal agency he intended to abolish.

The danger for Rubio is that the incident underlines one of the biggest doubts about the boyish 44-year-old senator — that underneath the attractive packaging and inspirational speeches, Rubio lacks the depth to be commander in chief. When a recording surfaced in 2012 of Mitt Romney telling donors that 47 percent of Americans just want government handouts, it helped confirm the knock on Romney that he was out of touch with much of America. This could be confirming the knock on Rubio.

"It affirmed my concerns that he's fairly shallow," said Concord resident Val Zanchuk, 65, an undecided voter at Rubio's event Sunday. "I'm just here to see if he has anything to say other than his normal script. Rubio should be bleeding right now. I saw Jeb (Bush) on Friday. I was impressed. He comes across much more genuine, much more knowledgeable than he appears to be on TV and the debates.

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[Last modified: Sunday, February 7, 2016 4:49pm]


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