Rubio under fire in GOP debate after rise in polls

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(L-R) Republican presidential candidates Ohio Governor John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm CollegeÊFebruary 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Sponsored by ABC News, the Independent Journal Review and Google, this is the final televised debate before voters go to the polls for the New Hampshire primary on February 9.

MANCHESTER, N.H.  — Marco Rubio, a first-term senator on the rise in the presidential race, faced a barrage of attacks in Saturday night’s Republican debate, with rivals vigorously challenging his readiness to be president and the depth of his expertise as they sought to salvage their own White House hopes.

Sen. Ted Cruz, fresh off his victory in the Iowa caucuses, also came under withering criticism for controversial political tactics, with one candidate disparaging him for having “Washington ethics” and being willing to test the campaign’s legal limits.

The focus on the two senators allowed GOP front-runner Donald Trump to go largely untouched in his return to the debate stage. His grip on the Republican lead has been shaken by his second-place finish in Iowa, though the next contest Tuesday in New Hampshire is still his to lose.

New Hampshire’s primary could further winnow an already shrinking GOP field. Hard-fought, expensive and far-ranging, the campaign has become a fight for the future of the Republican Party, though the direction the GOP will ultimately take remains deeply uncertain.

Florida’s Sen. Rubio has sought to appeal both to mainstream Republicans and those eager to upend the status quo. But his rivals, particularly New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have been blistering in their criticism of what they see as his slim qualifications to serve as commander in chief.

“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable,” Christie said. “You just simply haven’t.”

Christie, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, has staked his campaign on New Hampshire, pouring most of his resources into the state in recent weeks. All three played a more substantial role in this debate than in earlier contests, though each is still likely to face intense pressure to end his campaigns if he's unable to pull off a strong finish in New Hampshire.

Gov. Christie has built his closing argument around his criticism of Rubio, and he kept up that approach on the debate stage. He accused the senator of being a candidate governed by talking points — then pounced when the senator played into his hands by repeating multiple times what appeared to be a planned response to criticisms about his qualifications.

"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."

Rubio has sought to deflect criticism of his relative inexperience and the comparisons it draws to President Barack Obama by arguing the problem with the president isn't that he's naive, but that he's pushing an ideology that hurts the country. He made that point repeatedly throughout the debate.