New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, now in the single digits in New Hampshire, had nothing to lose on Saturday night by going into attack mode against Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. But in overdoing it, and more important, overlooking his real objective, he may have only helped Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had strong nights without making themselves seem overbearing. Sure, Bush had been baiting Rubio all week with slurs on his readiness and preparation, but in the face-to-face moment Bush barely touched Rubio and instead fired at Donald Trump, especially on eminent domain. Kasich did not have to lay a finger on anyone; he simply nailed down his message as an upbeat, competent governor.
Christie's problem is not Rubio, at least not now. Rather, it is that he trails two other governors in a race in which he must beat both to continue the argument of his candidacy. Does he pass Bush, who had the best debate of his campaign and who leads Christie by almost 4 points in the Real Clear Politics averages? Maybe, but not likely. Does he pass Kasich, who leads Christie by 7 points in the RCP averages? That's more unlikely, although possible.
Politics is akin to the story about a bear chasing two men. You don't have to outrun the bear, just the other man. In this case, it is three men - the three governors - who stay in the race only by outpacing the other two. From Rubio's perspective, all he has to do is finish second in New Hampshire, which is likely, but by no means certain. If he loses second, the debate will indeed have been a turning point and a serious blow to Rubio. If Rubio glides to second, the media hype about repeating his lines (as if no politician ever says the same thing over and over again) will go by the wayside like all the other misguided predictions in this primary.
Rubio nevertheless has a challenge, one that will make or break his candidacy. If he fights through the media storm, does what he set out to in New Hampshire, and demonstrates that he really is light on his feet and tough enough to stand up to Republicans and Democrats alike, he will have answered the criticism about his unpreparedness. If not, he will make way for others to claw their way back into the race.
In short, New Hampshire has one potentially bad (devastating, even) possible outcome for Rubio: Losing second. In every other scenario, some of his competition, including some of the most able governors, will be fatally wounded. Kasich, however, is not likely to be one of the casualties. That's because he had a consistent, effective message suited to the state and because his fellow governors never took him seriously. The latter may have been a lethal error.