MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Marco Rubio doesn’t lead in any of the polls, but that didn’t stop his presidential rivals from going after the Florida senator during Saturday night's debate as the candidates battled to be the GOP establishment’s less crazy alternative to Donald Trump.
In one of the sharpest back-and-forths of the entire 2016 campaign, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pilloried Rubio for his over-reliance on canned talking points -- and the attack was super-effective.
When Christie went after the senator for a lack of accomplishments, Rubio criticized Christie’s record as governor and then, as he often does, moved to a broader argument against President Barack Obama.
The moderators were ready to move on, but Christie wasn't having it.
"You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this. That's what Washington, D.C., does," Christie said. "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.”
The crowd went nuts.
Rubio responded with a shot at Christie for his reluctance to return to New Jersey for a snowstorm that then turned into a criticism of Obama, and Christie pointed out that, once again, Rubio had proved his point.
“There it is,” Christie said. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech.”
Incredibly, Rubio fell into Christie’s trap for a third time and, after some spirited crosstalk, Christie concluded that Rubio “gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points.”
It was undoubtedly Christie's strongest moment in any debate -- and Rubio's weakest.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also landed some shots against Rubio, presenting his fellow Florida Republican as too inexperienced.
"Look, let's be clear," Bush said. "Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician, and he may have the skills to be a president of the United States, but we've tried it the old way with Barack Obama, with soaring eloquence and we got -- we didn't get a leader; we got someone who wants to divide the country up."
While candidates repeatedly swung at Rubio, they largely ignored Trump. The dirty secret for this round is that most in the field can extend their campaigns if Trump wins in New Hampshire. But if Rubio were to overtake the reality TV star, it would be a signal that Republicans have finally coalesced behind a candidate, and a cue for the others to get out of the race.
When the moderators started off the debate by giving Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) a minute to criticize Trump’s temperament -- something Cruz has subtly done on the campaign trail time and time again -- the lawmaker largely passed on the opportunity, saying the temperament question is something voters have to ask themselves.
Cruz deferred from attacking Trump so much that Trump ended up attacking Cruz for not answering the question.
Bush did clash with Trump, as he has done in many previous debates, but his attacks continued to be less about trying to win over prospective Trump voters and more about appealing to voters who are already fiercely against Trump’s brash style and offensive policies.
The most direct exchange between the two men came on eminent domain, an issue of some concern to voters in a state whose motto is “Live Free Or Die.” Trump defended the practice of the government taking over private land so that public works like roads or the Keystone XL pipeline could be built. But Bush attacked Trump for using eminent domain to build “limousine parking lots” for his casinos.
In a reversal of their normal roles, Trump seemed uncharacteristically rattled by Bush, and he ended up attacking the crowd, calling out the Republican National Committee for loading the audience with rich donors who opposed him.
The bizarre strategy only drew more boos from the crowd as Trump moved from bullying his fellow candidates to a new era in the race, where Trump isn't the singular news, even if he's bashing voters.
In his return to the stage after sitting out the Fox News debate, Trump wasn't the center-ring circus show that he's normally been during Republican debates. Instead, the Rubio-Christie exchange dominated the night.
The other candidates on the stage struggled to deliver a memorable moment in the final days before the New Hampshire primary. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is polling between second and fourth in the state, stayed mostly positive Saturday night. And other candidates in the establishment lane refused to go after Kasich, even when the moderators lobbed them easy opportunities.
Presented with negative comments from Kasich about Christie's record, the New Jersey governor praised Kasich.
"He deserves credit for his record on jobs," Christie said. "He's done a very good job as governor of Ohio."
Cruz, fresh off his Iowa win but still a good 20 percentage points behind Trump in New Hampshire polls, also struggled to find a breakthrough moment during the debate. Cruz continued to face criticism from retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has been hitting Cruz for dirty tactics in Iowa. Carson characterized the Cruz campaign phone calls just before the Iowa caucuses that claimed Carson was suspending his campaign as "Washington ethics."
Cruz once again apologized for the calls -- "Ben, I'm sorry" -- and then largely blamed his misinformation on CNN's reports about Carson, even though the network had only reported Carson was taking a break before New Hampshire.
Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.
Read the latest on the GOP debate below: