NASHUA, N.H. — Blame the unpredictability of Tuesday's Republican primary contest here on Marco Rubio.
Coming out of Iowa, the Florida senator appeared on a glide path toward a solid second place finish in New Hampshire, at least, before one bad moment in an otherwise solid performance in Saturday evening's televised presidential re-scrambled the race. Yes, New York celebrity businessman Donald Trump is still the frontrunner. But the race for second and third is now a competition of as many as five candidates.
There's a case to make for those top spots for Rubio, but also for Ohio Gov. John Kasich; former Florida Jeb Bush; and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
During the past few days, New Hampshire voters haven't been too helpful in clearing the fog. Take undecided voter Ann Devito, who is a registered independent. Rubio is one of her finalists, although conceded that his run-in with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the debate "gave me pause." And yet, Devito braved a snowstorm with her family Monday evening to attend Rubio's primary eve campaign rally at Nashua Community College.
"Marco Rubio can bring people together — I think there's a positive message there," she said. "I'm really kind of bothered by the negativity of the campaign so far."
So, who else is Devito, a self described social liberal and fiscal conservative, considering? Not Christie, who did the dirty work of dinging Rubio with an attack on his repetition of certain lines in his stump speech. Rather, Bush. For good measure, Devito said that Democrat Bernie Sanders is the presidential candidate she respects most, because he "seems full of integrity and honesty."
The final RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls had Trump at 30.7 percent; Rubio at 14.4 percent; Kasich at 13 percent; Cruz at 12.4 percent; Bush at 11.3 percent and Christie at 5.4 percent.
Individually, the final surveys conducted before Primary Day were contradictory. The CNN/WMUR poll had Rubio at 17 percent; Cruz at 14 percent; Kasich at 10 percent; Bush at 7 percent and Christie at 4 percent. The Emerson College poll had Bush at 16 percent; Kasich at 13 percent; Rubio at 12 percent; Cruz at 11 percent and Christie at 6 percent. Polling since Saturday night was complicated because of the Super Bowl.
Christie claimed in an interview with Fox News' Megyn Kelly Monday evening that his internal polls showed movement and that he would surprise people.
In the absence of reliable data, political reporters on the ground in New Hampshire have been trying to gauge crowd size and enthusiasm to determine a candidate's prospects.
For instance: On Sunday, as Rubio was getting pummeled in the media for his altercation with Christie, his town hall meetings featured capacity overflow crowds that arrived early and stayed late. Other candidates were experiencing the same phenomenon.
Voter interviews at Rubio's events revealed that some voters were concerned about his debate performance. Simultaneously, others said that the episode didn't matter at all — even among those voters who agreed that it made the senator look bad and were still undecided. Dave Napier, an undecided voter in his late 50s who showed up to Rubio's Sunday morning rally in Londonderry, said the debate wouldn't impact his decision.
"It didn't matter to me," said Napier, who described himself as "probably" a Rubio voter but also considering Bush and Kasich. "It wasn't his best moment. I think he recovered very well with the security aspect of it. I don't care who the speaker is, you're going to have a minute that's not your best; that wasn't his best moment."