Rubio needs strong New Hampshire showing to rebut debate critics

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Rubio Discusses Debate Performance With Lester Holt: 'We Did Excellent'

MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb 9 (Reuters) - A week ago, it looked like the stars were aligning for Marco Rubio. Now, as New Hampshire holds its pivotal primary on Tuesday, the Republican presidential contender has to hope the sky does not come crashing down on him.

After a surprisingly strong third-place showing in last week's Iowa caucuses, Rubio came into New Hampshire hoping for a top-tier finish in the state to buttress his argument he is the candidate around whom the party establishment should rally.

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Rubio needs strong New Hampshire showing to rebut debate critics
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Activist and Ted Cruz supporter Lynda Farley of Edmonton, KY, talks to members of the press outside of the Red Arrow Diner as Cruz campaigns inside on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Voters throughout the state are heading to the polls as the New Hampshire Primary, also known as the first-in-the-nation primary, continues the process of selecting the next president of the United States. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
NASHUA, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets voters outside of a polling station at Fairgrounds Junior High School on February 9, 2016 in Nashua, New Hampshire. New Hampshire voters are heading to the polls in the nation's first primaries. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush thanks his supporters outside the polling place at Webster School on primary day February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Candidates from both parties are making last-minute attempts to swing voters to their side on the day of the 'First in the Nation' presidential primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., center left, watches the for results with his wife Jane, center right, during a primary night watch party at Concord High School, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., cheer during a primary night rally at Concord High School, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hold signs spelling out her name at her New Hampshire presidential primary campaign rally, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Hooksett, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Michael Skocay, 29, of Cambridge, Mass., smiles while wearing his face painted like the American flag while attending the primary night rally of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the Radison Hotel in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday Feb. 9, 2016. "I think his authenticity is what I like," says Skocay, "he speaks from the heart." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
A couple is seen through an American flag as they walk to a polling place for the New Hampshire primary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, greets a supporter as he visits a polling site at Bedford High School, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets people as he visits a polling station as voters cast their primary day ballots on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates continues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Marc Scheineson of McLean, Va., left, campaigns for Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as Atlant Schmidt of Nashua, N.H., campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., while a voter walks past at a polling location at Broad Street Elementary in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, during the New Hampshire primary. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Matthew King steps out of a voting booth after marking his ballot for the New Hampshire primary at a polling site, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Jim Smith steps out of a voting booth after marking his ballot at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Supporters of many of the presidential candidates hold signs outside the polling place at the Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primariy, the 'First in the Nation' test for presidential candidates from both parties. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A voter walks in to a polling site to to cast a ballot in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 9: Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina campaigns at Chez Vachon on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Candidates are in a final campaign push for votes on the 'First in the Nation' presidential primary day. (Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images)
Voters arrive to cast their ballots in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire presidential primary at the Chichester Town Hall in Chichester, New Hampshire, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Polls suggest that Republican Donald Trump maintains a dominant lead against his rivals in New Hampshire ahead of todays primary. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Republican presidential candidate Ohio Governor John Kasich delivers a meal to patrons at the Red arrow Diner on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Today New Hampshire voters will decide between Republican and Democratic nominees for the presidency. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with Frank Fiorina, husband of Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, as they campaign outside a polling place during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Derry, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A ballot for the New Hampshire primary is posted to the wall as a voter enters a polling site, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BOW, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Candidate signs are displayed in front of a middle school serving as a voting station on the day of the New Hampshire Primary on February 9, 2016 in Bow, New Hampshire. After months of campaigning, voters across New Hampshire get to go to the polls today to vote for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Following New Hampshire, the race for the presidency moves to South Carolina. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Supporters of many of the presidential candidates hold signs outside the polling place at the Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primarythe 'First in the Nation' test for presidential candidates from both parties. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
An election worker hands out stickers to voters afer casting their ballots at Belmont High School February 9, 2016 in Belmont, New Hampshire. / AFP / Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie exits his SUV outside the polling place at Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Candidates from both parties are making last-minute attempts to swing voters to their side on the day of the 'First in the Nation' presidential primary. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Merton Grant, 87, and his wife of 58 years Phyllis Grant, 80, of Nashua, N.H., pose for a portrait outside their polling place at Broad Street Elementary in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, during the New Hampshire primary. The couple voted for Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "We like that he is a born again Christian," says Phyllis Grant. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
BOW, NH - FEBRUARY 09: People vote inside of a middle school serving as a voting station on the day of the New Hampshire Primary on February 9, 2016 in Bow, New Hampshire. After months of campaigning, voters across New Hampshire get to go to the polls today to vote for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Following New Hampshire, the race for the presidency moves to South Carolina. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Republican presidential candidate Ohio Governor John Kasich shakes hands with supporters outside Manchester High School, a voting location for the New Hampshire state primary, on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Today New Hampshire voters will decide between Republican and Democratic nominees for the presidency. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: A man shovles in front of supporters of many of the presidential candidates holding signs outside the polling place at the Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primarythe 'First in the Nation' test for presidential candidates from both parties. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Voters head to the polling booths inside the Webster School gymnasium February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primarythe 'First in the Nation' test for presidential candidates from both parties. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stops at Dunkin' Donuts with her daughter Chelsea Clinton as she campaigns during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)onuts
Aaron Black, wearing a robot suit in protest of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., stands outside a polling site at Bedford High School in Bedford, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, as he awaits the senator's arrival (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
An electoral official prepares 'I Voted' stickers as local residents vote for the first US presidential primary at a fire station in Loudon, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2016. New Hampshire began voting on February 9 in the first US presidential primary with Republican Donald Trump calling on supporters to propel him to victory and Democrat Bernie Sanders primed to upstage Hillary Clinton. The northeastern state, home to just 1.3 million people, sets the tone for the primaries and could shake out a crowded Republican field of candidates pitting Trump and arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz against more establishment candidates led by Senator Marco Rubio. / AFP / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Alanna Van Antwerpen, 40, of Nashua, N.H., with her daughter Norah, 6, poses for a portrait outside her polling place at Broad Street Elementary in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday Feb. 9, 2016, during the New Hampshire primary. âItâs very important to vote and we always vote for the person we think is going to help the most people,â says Van Antwerpen, who declined to say who she voted for, saying she was just glad the primary season, at least for New Hampshire, was finally over. âIf we make it to this time next year in one piece as a nation, Iâd be impressed,â she said. âThereâs this underlying tension. Everyone gets a little amped up. People are very committed to the political process here.â (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) boards his campaign bus after stopping to thank supporters outside the polling place outside Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. With a good showing in the Iowa caucuses, Rubio has stepped into the crosshairs of fellow Republicans running for president and super PACs that want to slow his momentum with attacks on what they call his robotic and repetative messaging. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A voter shows her identification as she prepares to vote at Belmont High School February 9, 2016 in Belmont, New Hampshire. Voting began in New Hampshire on February 9 in the first US presidential primary, where Donald Trump leads the packed Republican field and Bernie Sanders was polling ahead of Hillary Clinton. Despite its small size New Hampshire's spot on the electoral calendar gives it special importance in the long state-by-state battle to select the Republican and Democratic candidates who will go head to head for the White House. / AFP / Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Local residents line up at a fire station to vote for the first US presidential primary in Loudon, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2016. New Hampshire began voting on February 9 in the first US presidential primary with Republican Donald Trump calling on supporters to propel him to victory and Democrat Bernie Sanders primed to upstage Hillary Clinton. The northeastern state, home to just 1.3 million people, sets the tone for the primaries and could shake out a crowded Republican field of candidates pitting Trump and arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz against more establishment candidates led by Senator Marco Rubio. / AFP / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
CORRECTION - A supporter of US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton adjusts a campaign poster outside the town hall as local residents vote for the first US presidential primary in Canterbury, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2016. New Hampshire began voting on February 9 in the first US presidential primary with Republican Donald Trump calling on supporters to propel him to victory and Democrat Bernie Sanders primed to upstage Hillary Clinton. The northeastern state, home to just 1.3 million people, sets the tone for the primaries and could shake out a crowded Republican field of candidates pitting Trump and arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz against more establishment candidates led by Senator Marco Rubio. / AFP / Jewel Samad / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Jewel Samad has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: Democratic instead of Republican. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: A man attempts to make a selfie with Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (back to camera) as he greets supporters outside the polling place at Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Candidates from both parties are making last-minute attempts to swing voters to their side on the day of the 'First in the Nation' presidential primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigns outside a polling place during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 9: Voters cast their ballots at the Bishop Leo E. O'Neil Youth Center February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Today New Hampshire voters go to the polls in the first-in-the-nation primary that begins the long election season. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Andrew Stephens, left, and Kelly Stephens, of Nashua, N.H., hold their children Luke, 2, and Finn, five-months, as they pose for a portrait outside their polling place at Broad Street Elementary in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, during the New Hampshire primary. âWe liked her the last time around,â Andrew Stephens, a psychotherapist, said of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clintonâs unsuccessful 2008 campaign. âAnd the Republican campaign is just a bit of a circus.â Kelly Stephens, an occupational therapist, agreed, âMy heart wanted Bernie Sanders. My head said Hillary. Sheâs a little more put together. The thought process is a little more there.â (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Brooks Thompson, right, checks voters in at a polling place at Broad Street Elementary in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, during the New Hampshire primary. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: A sign for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson in the snow outside the polling place at the Webster School February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primarythe 'First in the Nation' test for presidential candidates from both parties. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets voters outside of a polling station at Parker Varney School on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. New Hampshire voters are heading to the polls in the nation's first primaries. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Ashok Patel, 58, of Nashua, N.H., poses for a portrait outside his polling place at Broad Street Elementary in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, during the New Hampshire primary. "I voted for Hillary," says Patel, "I think she is the most likely to win. I don't know Bernie well and I see Hillary with more potential to win. I also think it's about time that one of the best democracies in the world has a woman as president." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Residents walk in the snow after casting their votes in the New Hampshire presidential primary election at the town hall polling site in Harts Location, New Hampshire, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. According to the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, the state has 383,834 voters who haven't declared a party affiliation, compared to 260,896 registered Republicans and 229,202 Democrats. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An election official places a resident's Republican ballot into a ballot box at the town hall polling site during the New Hampshire presidential primary election in Harts Location, New Hampshire, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. According to the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, the state has 383,834 voters who haven't declared a party affiliation, compared to 260,896 registered Republicans and 229,202 Democrats. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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But a debate performance on Saturday night that was widely mocked by Republicans and Democrats as well as legions on social media might have changed the equation for the U.S. senator from Florida.

Now Rubio must worry that anything less than a robust performance in New Hampshire will further fuel the suggestion that his campaign suffered a critical blow at the debate.

Dante Scala, an analyst on local politics at the University of New Hampshire, said that if Rubio did not do well in Tuesday's primary, "it isn't fatal necessarily, but it makes the road to the nomination longer and riskier."

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump is widely expected to win Tuesday's contest in New Hampshire, whose primary is part of the state-by-state process of picking party nominees for the Nov. 8 election to replace Democratic President Barack Obama.

But after Rubio finished far ahead of mainstream rivals Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich in Iowa, he appeared to be best positioned to place second in New Hampshire, perhaps knocking Christie or Kasich out of the race and emerging as the party's best hope to derail Trump's insurgent bid.

Rubio's debate showing, in which he helped further the perception he is an overly scripted, even robotic, candidate, has been cited by other contenders as proof he is not ready to shoulder the leadership mantle.

"When the lights get that bright, you either shine or you melt," Christie, the New Jersey governor, said at a campaign event in Hudson, New Hampshire, on Monday. "We can't afford to have a president who melts."

See Marco Rubio on the campaign trail:

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Marco Rubio on the campaign trail
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Rubio needs strong New Hampshire showing to rebut debate critics
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrives at a campaign rally in Sanford, Fla., Monday, March 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., shakes hands at a rally in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., bows his head in prayer at a campaign rally in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Sunday, March 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., smiles at a campaign rally, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., addresses supporters at a rally at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. pauses while addressing the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at a campaign event to the Sun City community in Bluffton, S.C., on Thursday Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. boards a plane with his family and staff to leave Manchester, N.H., Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016, en route to South Carolina after the New Hampshire primary. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
IN FLIGHT - FEBRUARY 10: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks with reporters on his charter flight from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport February 10, 2016 en route to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Rubio placed fifth in the New Hampshire primary, behind fellow GOP candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump, who swept away the competition with 35-percent of the vote. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks to the media during a visit to a polling site at Bedford High School, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., works to charge up a crowd during a campaign stop in a high school cafeteria, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Londonderry, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Jessie Lemire, 12, of Candia, N.H., takes a photo with Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as he greets people during a campaign stop at Puritan Backroom Restaurant, during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Monday Feb. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. leaves a campaign stop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, at Morseâs Sporting Goods in Hillsboro, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. reaches out for a handshake during a town hall campaign stop, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, at the New Hampshire Republican State Committee town hall in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
MT PLEASANT, SC - JANUARY 13: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets guests during a campaign rally at the Water Dog Grill on January 13, 2016 in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Tomorrow Rubio will join other candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president for a debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in North Charleston, S.C.. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. smiles as he talks to members of the media following his speaking at Rastrelli's Tuscany Special Events Center in Clinton, Iowa, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrives with his wife Jeanette Dousdebes, right, and their daughter Daniella, 13, to speak at the Maytag Innovation Center in Newton, Iowa, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, waits to speak during a town hall meeting at the Maytag Innovation Center in Newton, Iowa, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Rubio found himself under siege on two fronts Tuesday over his attendance record in the U.S. Senate as the Florida lawmaker embarked on a swing through snowy Iowa. Photographer: Scott Morgan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., points to a potential supporter for a question during a campaign stop in Rochester, N.H. As 2015 wanes, the Florida senator is back in Iowa on Tuesday, Dec. 29, for a multi-day swing, hoping to shore up support and finish in the top tier of candidates in the Feb. 1 caucuses. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm, File)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks during a campaign stop at Weiler Manufacturing, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, in Knoxville, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., greets workers during a campaign stop at Weiler Manufacturing, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, in Knoxville, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
MIAMI BEACH, FL - NOVEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets people before speaking during a community rally for 'Never Again' which was bringing attention to what the organizers say is a rise in worldwide anti-Semitism and the campaign against Israel's right to exist on November 15, 2015 in Miami Beach, Florida. Rubio continues to campaign for the Republican party's nomination. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA - NOVEMBER 21: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to guests during a town hall meeting on November 21, 2015 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Yesterday Rubio participated in the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines with six of his Republican rivals for the nomination. Rubio has several campaign stops scheduled in the state today. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council meetings in Washington, DC, November 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 12: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the Sunshine Summit opening dinner at Disney's Contemporary Resort on November 12, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.The dinner is the kick-off of a three-day event that will draw thousands of Republicans, mostly to hear live speeches from all the GOP presidential candidates on Friday and Saturday. (Photo by Tom Benitez - Pool/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 13: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the Sunshine Summit conference being held at the Rosen Shingle Creek on November 13, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. The summit brought Republican presidential candidates in front of the Republican voters. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign rally at the Country Springs Hotel in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. Rubio will appear at Tuesday's Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CONCORD, NH - NOVEMBER 05: Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) files paperwork for the New Hampshire primary at the State House on November 5, 2015 in Concord, New Hampshire. Each candidate must file paperwork to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot, which will be held February 9, 2016. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio leaves the New Hampshire State House after filing for the state ballot November 5, 2015 in Concord, New Hampshire. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 4: Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) participates in a round table discussion at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Rubio is looking for a bump in the polls following a strong outing in the last debate. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during an event at a restaurant Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, in Las Vegas. Rubio is scheduled to attend events in the Las Vegas area through Saturday. (AP Photo/John Locher)
GREENVILLE, SC - SEPTEMBER 18: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to voters at the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum September 18, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina. Eleven republican candidates each had twenty five minutes to talk to voters Friday at the Bons Secours Wellness arena in the upstate of South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at Civic Hall about the 'sharing economy' on October 6, 2015 in New York City. Rubio, who has been experiencing a slight uptick in the polls after strong debate performances, has a second book out in paperback this Tuesday called American Dream: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks with students Anabelle, and Gregory Watson during a campaign stop at Robie's Country Store Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Hooksett, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., smiles as he speaks to supporters at an outdoor restaurant in the Santurce district of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. The U.S. territory must find its own way to get its financial house in order, Rubio wrote in an op-ed published in Spanish Friday in El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper. The Florida Republican opposes efforts to allow Puerto Rico to use bankruptcy laws to deal with a staggering $72 billion debt. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign stop at the VFW, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Littleton, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 26: GOP Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., holds a town hall meeting in Londonderry, N.H., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 18: Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (L) (R-FL) mans the grill with U.S. Rep. David Young (R) (R-IA) at the Iowa Pork Producers Pork Tent during the Iowa State Fair on August 18, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Presidential candidates are addressing attendees at the Iowa State Fair on the Des Moines Register Presidential Soapbox stage and touring the fairgrounds. The State Fair runs through August 23. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - August 17: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., greets supporters during a Family Night event at Dean Park in Ankeny, Iowa, Monday, August 17, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 14: Marco Rubio gives speach for the Foreign Policy Initiative at 3 West Club on August 14, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participates in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 05: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets guests gathered for a campaign event at Town Hall on August 5, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Rubio is in Cleveland to participate in the Fox News GOP presidential candidate debate scheduled to take place tomorrow evening. The top ten polling Republican candidates were chosen to participate in the debate. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, smiles while speaking during a rally at Town Hall restaurant ahead of the Fox News Republican Presidential Primary Debate in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Rubio will appear on stage with 9 other presidential candidates for the first Republican presidential debate tomorrow evening while former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal didn't make the cut. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 'Road to Majority' legislative luncheon in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 18, 2015. The annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference gives top-tier presidential contenders as well as long shots a chance to compete for the large evangelical Christian base in the crowded Republican primary contest. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BOONE, IA - JUNE 06: Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) waits his turn to speak at a Roast and Ride event hosted by freshman Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) on June 6, 2015 in Boone, Iowa. Ernst is hoping the event, which featured a motorcycle tour, a pig roast, and speeches from several 2016 presidential hopefuls, becomes an Iowa Republican tradition. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
GREENVILLE, SC - MAY 09: Republican Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) greets supporters at the Freedom Summit on May 9, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina. Rubio joined eleven other potential candidates in addressing the event hosted by conservative group Citizens United. (Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
NASHUA, NH - APRIL 17: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 17, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Summit brought together local and national Republicans and was attended by all the Republicans candidates as well as those eyeing a run for the nomination. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - APRIL 13: Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a formal announcement that he is entering the 2016 Presidential race at the Freedom Tower on April 13, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photos by Charles Ommanney for the Washington Post)
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BATTLE FOR SECOND PLACE

Rubio, in an interview with CNN on Monday, dismissed the torrent of criticism that has come his way since the debate and said his potential to be a strong general election candidate against the Democrats made him a target.

"We raised more money after this debate than any debate we've ever had and we're excited about it," Rubio said. "And there's a reason they attacked me more than anyone else."

A WMUR-CNN poll released on Monday showed Trump leading in New Hampshire with the support of 31 percent of those planning to vote in the Republican primary. Rubio was in second place at 17 percent, followed by Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, at 14 percent.

Kasich, the Ohio governor, had 10 percent, Bush, a former Florida governor, was at 7 percent, and Christie at 4 percent, according to the poll conducted from Wednesday to Sunday, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points.

The New Hampshire race promises to be dramatic on the Democratic side as well.

Bernie Sanders has a strong lead in state opinion polls over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who narrowly beat him in Iowa.

Clinton has sought to play down expectations for her performance in New Hampshire, noting that Sanders is a U.S. senator from neighboring Vermont. But a big loss in New Hampshire to Sanders, an underdog candidate and self-described socialist, would be an embarrassment for Clinton.

FIGHTING FOR TRACTION

Among Republicans, Christie has become Rubio's chief antagonist and hopes to benefit from any loss of Rubio's momentum. A finish below the top three could force Christie's exit from the race.

Kasich, who has been rising in the polls in New Hampshire, is another candidate seeking to profit from Rubio's troubles. He has long staked the viability of his campaign on the outcome in New Hampshire, and he has a deep organization in the state, with 800 volunteers manning phone banks and going door to door to court voters.

He is counting on attracting independents who can vote in the Republican primary. At an event in Windham, New Hampshire, on Monday, one undecided voter told Kasich she was trying to decide whether to support him or Democrats Clinton and Sanders.

A Rubio stumble might also be a huge boon to Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, who has had to endure calls from party elites that he drop out of the race rather than keep competing with Rubio.

Rubio's organization on the ground in New Hampshire is not as extensive as Kasich's or those of some other mainstream candidates. His strategy has long been to leverage his telegenic presence on cable news channels to build support.

His third-place Iowa finish seemed to validate that decision. But it has also left him more vulnerable to mood swings among the New Hampshire electorate.

There remains the possibility that Rubio will silence the doubters on Tuesday, demonstrating that his debate mishap meant little to voters.

Cruz was considered to have turned in a poor showing at a debate before the Iowa caucuses. Three days later, he won them. (Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)

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