February 8, 2016 5:46 am
Updated: February 8, 2016 5:11 pm

After Rubio stumbles, rivals see opening in New Hampshire

WATCH: Presidential hopefuls are out in full force in New Hampshire, preparing for tomorrow's primary in that state. As Aarti Pole reports, Donald Trump leads the Republican race after an upset in Iowa, while Democrat Bernie Sanders is ahead of Hillary Clinton the polls.

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MANCHESTER, N.H. – Marco Rubio’s uneven debate performance just days before Tuesday’s pivotal New Hampshire primary has emboldened a trio of governors seeking to stem his rise in the Republican race for president. But if Rubio’s rivals can slow him in New Hampshire, they are likely to leave the Republican race with a muddled mix of establishment contenders and no clear favourite to challenge outsiders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

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In the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton found herself trailing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by large margins in New Hampshire polls after narrowly winning last Monday’s lead-off Iowa caucuses. Clinton aides worry that a big Sanders victory in the state could help him make headway among women and minority voters, important parts of the coalition that twice elected Barack Obama as president. Sanders’ strength with younger voters only heightens the threat he poses to what was once Clinton’s decisive national lead.

Clinton took a detour Sunday to Flint, Michigan, which continues to deal with the fallout from a lead-contaminated water system. She called the water crisis in the predominantly black city “immoral” and demanded that Congress approve $200 million in emergency aid to fix the pipes.

Clinton said she was making a “personal commitment” to help Flint in a message delivered not only to the congregants at a local Baptist church but also a more heavily-minority electorate in upcoming Southern primary contests that could help her build a foundation for accumulating enough delegates to secure nomination at the party’s national convention.

Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, tried to prevent Clinton from cutting into his lead in New Hampshire. He drew another large crowd Sunday in Portsmouth, where he reprised his indictment of a “rigged economy” and “corrupt campaign finance system.”

New Hampshire traditionally hosts the first presidential primary election on the campaign calendar, offering a clue into what Americans want in their next president. The winners will gain momentum heading into the next contests in South Carolina and Nevada which have markedly more diverse populations.

Among the Republicans, Rubio was downplaying his rough outing in Saturday night’s debate, while touting his overall campaign momentum after his third-place finish in Iowa, hoping to use that momentum to boost his chances in Tuesday’s contest.

Trump, who finished second to Cruz in Iowa, was pleased with his debate performance and place atop New Hampshire’s Republican polls, and he doubled down Sunday on his call for the U.S. to reinstitute waterboarding and even harsher treatment for interrogating foreign prisoners.

On NBC’s “Meet The Press” Sunday, Trump said waterboarding, accepted as torture internationally and now forbidden by U.S. law, is “peanuts” compared to what Islamic State group members practice.

Rubio is trying to fend off challenges from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In the debate, Christie unleashed withering attacks on the first-term Florida senator, questioning whether Rubio has the experience and policy depth to serve as president – or whether he’s simply a well-spoken lightweight. Christie tripped up Rubio by calling him out in real-time for his reliance on rehearsed talking points.

The morning after, Christie declared the Republican contest a changed race.

“There was a march amongst some in the chattering class to anoint Sen. Rubio,” Christie said on CNN’s State of the Union. “I think after last night, that’s over.”

Christie and his fellow governors need that to be the case, given that they’ve staked their White House hopes on New Hampshire. Without a strong showing, each will face enormous pressure to drop out of the race from Republican Party leaders eager to rally around a single candidate more acceptable to the party establishment who can challenge Cruz and Trump, the top-two finishers in the Iowa caucuses.

Cruz, a U.S. Senator from Texas, is not expected to fare as well in New Hampshire as in Iowa, where he drew support from a large bloc of socially conservative evangelicals. His campaign is more focused on the Southern states that follow later in the primary calendar.

The prospect of Trump or Cruz winning the Republican nomination has set many Republican leaders on edge, and that anxiousness is only likely to increase should New Hampshire voters leave Rubio and the governors clustered together in the primary results, failing to anoint one as their preferred challenger to the front-runners.

Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Julie Bykowicz, Holly Ramer, Ken Thomas, Lisa Lerer, Sergio Bustos, Thomas Beaumont and Kathleen Ronayne in New Hampshire; Bill Barrow in South Carolina, and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.

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