What a strange month February has been for Marco Rubio. It was barely a week ago when the pride of West Miami sprinted out of Iowa in third place, riding waves of momentum as the establishment candidate who could take down Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
But an odd software glitch has beset the GOP golden boy in the last couple days: He can't stop weirdly repeating himself word-for-word in debates and speeches. Now he's being tailed by protesters in robot costumes and pundits are wondering if he's imploding just before tonight's vital New Hampshire primary.
Polls are no help at all in New Hampshire, so it's anyone's guess what voters will actually do at the ballot box tonight. But Rubio's hard stumbles combined with a surging John Kasich and — really! — Jeb Bush could spell trouble for the Florida senator.
No one was predicting a Rubio crash-and-burn last week. After surging to nearly tie Trump in Iowa, Rubio was siphoning away donors and endorsements from his one-time mentor Jeb. Polls showed him rocketing toward the top tier.
But it only takes one high-profile slip-up to shake up a primary process as chaotic as this GOP race and Rubio has had a doozy of a bad week on the trail. It started on Saturday during the last GOP debate. As Chris Christie hammered Rubio over his record, the senator visibly malfunctioned on stage.
The screw-up hurt Rubio two ways: It reinforced his critics' charges that he's just an overly scripted media creation with no actual gravitas and it also put a serious dent in his reputation as one of the party's best debaters.
If Rubio could have shaken it off and shined on the trail, he might have eased off one terrible debate. But yesterday in Nashua, it happened again!
Rubio has always been a relentlessly on-message candidate — reporters who tail him to multiple campaign rallies and town halls can't help but admire how firmly he sticks to his personal story and campaign talking points. But something has thrown Rubio off his mark, and suddenly that consistency looks less like admirable focus and more like a guy clinging with all his might to a script.
His opponents have gleefully seized on the problem before tonight's vote, with Christie and Jeb hammering him on the trail for his lack of experience.
Oh, and then there are those robot protesters. They've been showing up to every campaign stop in New Hampshire, and this morning one claimed to have been assaulted by annoyed Rubio staffers. (The man works for American Bridge, a Democratic PAC, so take that into account when considering his allegations.)
Rubio staff went from ignoring us to physically shoving me and someone not from us dressed as robot pics TK— evale72 (@evale72) February 9, 2016
Kevin after they ripped his costume off pic.twitter.com/vzhOiQXsEV— evale72 (@evale72) February 9, 2016
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Rubio told press at Manchester precinct for 20 minutes. After their staff pushed and shoved us he retreated to bus after like 2 mins— evale72 (@evale72) February 9, 2016
How much will all this actually hurt Rubio at the polls? We'll find out tonight. Most polling still shows a complete logjam at second place, with Bush, Kasich, Rubio and Cruz all trailing Trump.
If Rubio can stick close to the pack, he can probably regain his momentum — but if Bush or Kasich open a sizable lead in New Hampshire tonight, Rubio might need some serious reprogramming on the campaign trail.