Over the next 24 hours, as Mr. Christie gloated in television interviews and on the stump, Mr. Rubio angrily groused to advisers about news coverage claiming he had lost his momentum.
His aura of unflappability pierced, the senator’s opponents pounced — and, to their surprise, he kept looking off-balance. On Mondaymorning, Mr. Rubio was unusually listless and humorless during a town-hall-style meeting. He paused to reflect on the last 24 hours and the fight he foresaw ahead — “a very messy and competitive process,” he said.
He was right. A few hours later, at a different event, he inadvertently repeated a line from his stump speech, in an unfortunate echo of his debate mishap. By Primary Day, he was followed from event to event by hecklers who dressed as robots to lampoon his mechanical debate performance.
A few hours later, what was supposed to be a night of triumph turned into a doleful evening of defeat.
Before a dejected crowd that filled just two-thirds of a hotel ballroom here, Mr. Rubio had decided to acknowledge what had become an agonizing reality to everyone around him.