Sen. Marco Rubio refused to predict a top-three finish in New Hampshire on the eve of the state’s primary vote, a move to pull back expectations that were building along with his momentum last week but stalled after a disappointing debate over the weekend.
“Well, I don't-- this is such a big race that I don't think the numbers three or four, I think the point-- we need to do-- we need to show strength here,” he told NBC News’ Lester Holt in a sit-down interview in New Hampshire on Monday.
“We need to show the fact that we continue to grow our campaign…we need to pick up delegates, people forget about that.”
He also noted that in New Hampshire, some of his opponents “have invested all of their resources in one place,” and acknowledged, “that's a challenge.”
Rubio’s campaign has refused to predict a finish for the candidate on Tuesday night, but in his interview with Holt, Rubio was already looking past New Hampshire to South Carolina, where he predicted he’ll “do really well.
"What I know is that, unlike perhaps some other people, when we're done here, and we love being here, and when we're done here in New Hampshire, we're going to South Carolina,” he said.
“And we're gonna be very involved there, in Nevada after that.”He noted that the sheer size of the GOP field made this an “unusual election” that’s going to “take a little longer” to decide a nominee, but “we’re prepared” for that inevitability.
Still, New Hampshire was seen up until this weekend as a potential winnowing contest in the race, one with only three viable tickets on to the next competition. In particular, expectations were heightened for Rubio to finish second in the state after his strong third-place finish in Iowa last week.
Those expectations continued to build over the week following the Iowa caucuses as a cascade of elected officials from across the ideological spectrum endorsed Rubio.
But his momentum came to a halt this weekend after he was pummeled by his opponents during the Saturday night debate over his accomplishments in the Senate and reliance on talking points — and underscored their attacks by repeating a key talking point four times during the debate.
Rubio has since doubled and tripled down on that talking point, that he'd "say it again" — "Barack Obama's trying to change America ... none of the things that have happened are accidents."
He told Holt that he felt he did “excellent” in the debate, and that “we’ve benefited from it,” noting that his campaign had a surge in fundraising in the first hour.
Rubio also charged that the poor reviews were simply the media looking for “something new and different” to report on, and “criticism is from the people that cover politics. Not from voters.”
“It’s not gonna change the election,” Rubio said, “cause it's voters we're targeting.”
But in a telling sign for a candidate whose campaign has professed him the winner of every previous debate, Rubio refused to rank his performance on Saturday night. “I never rank debates,” he said.
Rubio: I've done more than most of my opponents
And he took time in the interview Monday to level attacks against his opponents that he didn’t articulate on the debate stage Saturday night.
Rubio said Christie’s attacks on his reliance on talking points was intended to distract from Christie’s “liberal record,” noting the fact that New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded on the governor’s watch, backed some gun control measures previously and Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, among other things.
“So if you're a candidate, you don't want to talk about that. You want to figure out something else. And so that's what they'll do,” he said.
With Rubio wounded, those three establishment-minded candidates likely have the most to gain in the final vote, and Christie and Bush have been going after Rubio on the experience question for the past week. While Kasich’s been more reticent to attack, Christie ramped his up this weekend, telling voters at a town hall in Manchester, N.H. that Rubio's "got a lot of talent, not a lot of experience."
In the interview on Monday, Rubio aggressively pushed back against that charge from Christie and others, declaring that he's had "real achievements" during his time in the Florida state House and U.S. Senate, touting his efforts on eminent domain legislation; new sanctions on Hezbolla and efforts to dismantle Obamacare, among others.
He also said his youth was an asset in the race, and declared: “I haven't lived as long as some of the people running for president, but I've done more than most of them,” he told Holt.
Rubio argued in particular that his foreign policy experience, as a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, surpasses that of the rest of the field.“They have zero experience on foreign policy. None. Jeb Bush has no foreign policy experience,” he said.
But broadly, Rubio dismissed attacks from the governors in the race, arguing that because they’re so focused on a strong finish in New Hampshire, they were “energized about doing anything they can to try to survive” in the state.
“When your campaign is not going well, and you blame someone else for it, or you just think you gotta tear them down in order to move up, you're gonna target someone,” he said.
“But it's part of the process. It's not a big deal. It doesn't bother me.”
Rubio: "You get used to" attacks
Rubio admitted that part of the reason he’s unfazed by the attacks is he’s gotten a thicker skin since launching his campaign — and said that he doesn’t believe they matter to voters, anyway.
“You get used to it after a while,” he said of the attacks. “But I think you also kind of learn over time what matters and what doesn't. There's a difference between what voters see and what a political consulting class might think.”
But while Rubio has learned what matters to voters over the course of the campaign, he said he largely tries to stay out of the nitty-gritty of the campaign strategy.
“Obviously I'm aware of some of that, but I'm not involved in the logistical or strategic aspect of the campaign. I think I need to go out and be myself, who I am, what I believe in-- take it out to as many voters as possible, try to get as many of them to support me as possible,” he said.
And that’s the aspect of the campaign he finds most fun. Rubio admitted that the heavy fundraising all candidates must do at the start of the campaign to build up a warchest to sustain them is “not the most enjoyable.”
This period — where candidates have hectic schedules packed with town halls, stops at diners and individual interactions with voters — is more his speed.“This part of the campaign's a lotta fun. You know, the fundraising part and all […] I don't hate it, but it's not the most enjoyable,” he said.
“The most enjoyable is this, you know — the going out, the meeting voters, the last second, the adrenaline. I think you have to like competition to do this kinda stuff.”