Jeb Bush congratulates John Kasich after the Ohio governor said people will need seatbelts if he gets elected president because there's going to be so much happening. The three governors still in the race, including Chris Christie, essentially tag-teamed to take on Marco Rubio during last night's Republican debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

THE BIG IDEA:

GOFFSTOWN, N.H.—The three governors still standing in the race for the Republican nomination, each fighting for survival, delivered in the clutch here last night during the final debate before New Hampshire’s looming primary.

The trio essentially tag-teamed and piled on Marco Rubio, who had been gaining here after his strong third-place finish in Iowa. Led by Chris Christie, they appear to slow, if not stop, the Florida senator’s momentum by raising questions about his experience and readiness.

This has not been a good cycle to run for president as a current or former governor. Just ask Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee or even Martin O’Malley. There have been so many insults added to injury: Christie showed up 45 minutes late to a rally yesterday after his bus apparently broke down. Jeb Bush’s deputy policy director was attacked by a dog while she was knocking on doors in Manchester. John Kasich, though he leads the crucial battleground of Ohio, has often been an afterthought.

But before an audience of 1,000 at Saint Anselm College, and millions more watching at home on ABC, the three men each got the chance to tout their records as leaders and contrast them with the 44-year-old first-term senator.

-- The reviews, across the board, are positive:

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “Christie was the relentless prosecutor. Bush was knowledgeable and, in contrast to some earlier performances, tough and direct. Kasich carved out space as a (happy warrior) ready and willing to work across party lines. … More than in other previous debates, this one turned into governors against the others. And whether by design or accident, the three seemed to reinforce one another in taking down the candidates who finished first, second and third in Iowa.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd: “If an alien came down and simply watched this debate, they'd never believe that Trump, Rubio and Cruz were the top three in the polls … Christie, Kasich and Bush are all having their best debate performances tonight.  Is it too little too late or just in time?”

-- There is consensus that Rubio lost the debate, across the mainstream and conservative media.

Rubio during a commercial break in last night's Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rubio played into his critics’ hands. He seemed under-prepared for attacks that have been telegraphed all week long.

He repeatedly defended the president as competent in a botched effort to rebut charges that he is “the Republican Obama.” He was trying to make the point that Obama has not governed the way he has because he was a first-term senator but because he was a liberal ideologue intent on transforming America. But the result was that he kept saying Obama knows what he is doing, a terrible message for a conservative audience.

If anything, Rubio showed that he is less rhetorically gifted than the current occupant of the Oval Office. In addition to the governors, Trump joined the Rubio pile on, citing problems at the VA to make the case Obama is in over his head.

Worse, as that battle was playing out, Rubio kept repeating the same talking point, which was cringe-worthy because Christie had attacked him hard for hewing closely to canned talking points. The New Jersey governor pounced when Rubio repeated the same point almost verbatim, and with the same cadence, that he had made minutes earlier. “There it is,” the governor interjected. “The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”

It was an exchange for the ages, akin to when Ronald Reagan said “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in 1980.

It’s also rich because Rubio, before he was running for president, actually used to say Obama “doesn’t know what he is doing” all the time. (BuzzFeed highlights four examples here.)

Watch a super cut, provided by a rival campaign, of Rubio saying the exact same thing about Obama over and over again:

And our video team produced a two-minute video of a robotic-sounding Rubio saying the exact same thing over and over again in other contexts:

-- Additionally, the central rationale of Rubio’s candidacy is that he is electable and can unite the party. His rivals successfully put him on the defensive over his opposition to abortion without exception, including after rape and incest. Bush called this an extreme position that would make it hard to win a general election. Christie offered a spirited defense of why women should be allowed to terminate pregnancies after they’ve been raped. Rubio’s retort—“I would rather lose an election than be on the wrong side of this issue”—will play well with social conservatives, important next week in South Carolina. But it will scare the donor class.

-- Rubio’s loss means that there will be at least four tickets, and maybe even five, out of New Hampshire on Tuesday night: The senator’s weakness will freak out some Bush donors who have been waiting until after New Hampshire to defect, and his failure to effectively take the heat when he’s got a bull's eye on his back will slow the D.C. establishment’s coalescence around him, which was the dominant storyline from the Iowa caucuses until the debate. It will most likely still happen eventually, but GOP heavyweights who have been lining up to endorse will now want to wait at least another week or two for signals that Saturday was just an aberration.

-- The problem for the governors is that all three of them did well. Because none had a breakout moment, and each had a great night, New Hampshire may not actually winnow the field to the degree it usually does. Kasich has fared slightly better in recent polls here than Bush, and Christie has fallen off in the face of attack ads. But if Kasich and Bush finish in a roughly similar position, both of them will have license to plunge ahead into South Carolina – where George W. Bush plans on coming to campaign for his brother and Kasich could play well in the coastal areas.

Christie’s campaign says the New Hampshire polls are wrong, and that he will surprise. A stronger-than-expected finish for him could mean that none of the three governors drops out after Tuesday. In that scenario, New Hampshire would not play the winnowing role it always has.

Rubio even started visibly sweating in the last hour, like Richard Nixon in his 1960 debate against John F. Kennedy:

-- The reviews of Rubio’s performance this morning are blistering:

National Review editor Rich Lowry writes in a column that Rubio's exchange with Christie has “the potential to change the narrative of his candidacy.”

Conservative Post columnist Charles Krauthammer: “This is a moment when he really could have put away the field … and this is likely to put something of a brake on his momentum. Look, we were at a point where … other governors who dropped out of the race endorsing him, and what he could have done is to start running the table, but this is going to hurt.”

Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin gives Rubio a “D” on his post-debate report card: “Picked the wrong night to play into his opponents' hands and will now be subjected to intense, negative scrutiny of his rhetoric for a long, long time.”

New Hampshire professor Dante Scala: Started the night thinking Rubio could make it a two-man race in New Hampshire. Ending it wondering who will finish second.

Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti called Christie’s attack on Rubio’s inexperience “brutal and bruising.”

-- Rubio’s weakness means that Trump remains the favorite to win New Hampshire’s primary.

The Rubio pile-on meant that Trump took few direct hits. The only real exception was when Jeb hit him hard on eminent domain.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer: “As well as the governors did tonight, my gut is the debate benefitted Trump the most. He came across just fine and I think his New Hampshire lead holds up.”

The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last: [Trump] wasn’t bombastic. Or erratic. He was—by Trumpian standards—presidential? He entered the debate with a commanding lead in the New Hampshire polls and his only worry was a surging Rubio … who got stopped cold. The second-place slot got more muddled by the debate, not less. And that's good news for the front-runner.”

The Fix’s Aaron Blake: “It was as if all the candidates were conceding the state to him.”

MORE REACTION TO EACH OF LAST NIGHT’S MAIN CHARACTERS—

Christie was fired up last night. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

-- Christie went full Bulworth.

The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro: “Mr. Christie seemed to rob Mr. Rubio of …his soaring oratory, firm command of policy and steely unflappability … and turn them against him. Mr. Christie, who as a presidential candidate has frequently suppressed his most pugilistic instincts, cast off any restraint and did what he does best: slice and slash. ‘You know what the shame is, Marco?’ Mr. Christie said. ‘The shame is that you would criticize somebody for actually showing up to work, plowing the streets, getting the trains running on time, when you’ve never been responsible for that in your entire life.’”

-- Kasich’s shtick – trying to show that he is above the fray and not going negative – finally worked for him:

Kasich (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

NBC’s Joe Scarborough: “Kasich has a winning demeanor tonight. NH independents and moderates are going to be attracted to his performance.”

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin: Ohio Gov. John Kasich had a strong outing, the best of the race. He stayed upbeat, and defining conservatism as embracing the right of everyone to rise … made a calm and heartfelt plea for leadership, arguing that you must “work with people” and not resort to executive orders. Late in the debate he extolled his effort to reconcile police and minority activists … He touted his own state’s work with aiding employment of veterans. No one chose to attack him, an oversight that may come back to haunt his competitors.

-- Jeb had his best debate yet: He got credit for being the only candidate to attack Trump.

Jeb! (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Jeff Greenfield: “A glimpse tonight of why folks thought Jeb would be a good candidate.”

-- Finally, Cruz was basically a non-factor, and his team was happy he did not face the same kind of scrutiny as in the final debate before Iowa. He benefits from Rubio failing to consolidate the establishment. He apologized to Ben Carson again; he took a victory lap on winning the caucuses despite opposing the Renewable Fuel Standard; and he spoke powerfully about losing his sister to drug addiction. 

The Dallas Morning News' Todd J. Gillman: "Despite his win in Iowa, no one seemed to treat Cruz as a true front-runner … when it comes to debates, he’s shown a strong preference for insinuation over direct confrontation. Asked twice whether he stood by a warning he issued days earlier that if Trump is elected, 'he would nuke Denmark,' Cruz twice demurred."

-- The Post’s Fact Checker looked at 15 suspicious or otherwise interesting claims made by the candidates. Read here.

-- Read the full annotated transcript here.

-- NPR tallied talk time: Rubio, 18:14; Cruz, 17:34; Trump, 15:32; Christie, 12:53; Bush, 12:30; Kasich, 10:33; Carson, 8:46.

-- Breanne Deppisch contributed to this special Sunday edition of The Daily 202.

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- Bernie Sanders appeared on "Saturday Night Live" with Larry David. Per John Wagner: "David was playing a passenger on a sinking Titanic-like ship when Sanders emerged to protest his insistence that he get a spot on a lifeboat because he comes from a wealthy family. 'Hold on, hold on, wait a second,' the Sanders character said. 'I am so sick of the 1 percent getting this preferential treatment. Enough is enough. We need to unite and work together if we’re all going to get through this.' 'Sounds like socialism to me,' the David character said. 'Democratic socialism,' Sanders said, correcting him. 'Ahhh, what’s the difference?' asked David. 'Huuuuge difference,' Sanders said, stretching out the word 'huge' even longer than he does on the campaign trail. ... 'Who are are you?' David asked. 'I am Bernie Sanderswitsky,' Sanders replied. 'But we’re gonna change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound quite quite so Jewish.'" Watch that sketch here.

After a commercial break, Sanders re-appeared out of costume. "How are things going in New Hampshire?' David asked him. "Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good," he replied. Watch David's opening monologue.

My favorite skit was "Bern Your Enthusiasm": Sanders does not appear, but David, in character as Sanders, refuses to shake a woman’s hand because she had just coughed in it. Then a voter asks him to pop her shoulder back into its socket so she can go vote. He refuses. Watch it here.

The trail of a flying object after it soared into the air above North Korean territory, as seen from the Chinese border city of Dandong. (Reuters/Kyodo)

-- North Korea launched a long-range missile that appears to have entered space, the Pentagon reports. The test prompted international condemnation and threats of fresh sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. In response, South Korea will begin formal talks with the U.S. to allow the placement of an anti-missile system on its territory.

-- CNN fired back at Ted Cruz after he blamed the network for publishing false information that led his campaign to spread the rumor Ben Carson was dropping out:

GET SMART FAST:

  1. Brazilian researchers said they found “active” presence of the Zika virus in saliva and urine samples, raising the possibility that the infection could be spread through kissing and other contact. (Dom Phillips and Nick Miroff)
  2. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos denied the correlation between the Zika virus and microcephaly. Zika has effected an estimated 25,600 Colombians and 3,177 pregnant women throughout the country. Santos said a U.S. medical-scientific team will arrive in Colombia to help investigate the mosquito-born virus. (AP)
  3. Virginia Tech student Natalie Keepers was no longer seeing a mental health counselor as she allegedly planned 13-year old Nicole Lovell’s murder. She was reportedly told “she no longer needed therapy” by a university counselor in December. (Shawn Boburg, Moriah Balingit and Nick Anderson)
  4. Over 100 people are still missing after an earthquake shook southern Taiwan, causing a high-rise residential building to collapse. (Gladys Tsai)
  5. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey denied reports that user timelines would be organized in an algorithm instead of the standard, chronological order. Twitter users overwhelmingly protested the proposed change, part of the site’s ongoing efforts to spark growth. (USA Today)
  6. A white Chicago police officer who shot and killed a black 19-year-old and her 55-year-old neighbor in response to a domestic dispute has filed a lawsuit against the teenager’s estate, claiming trauma. He is seeking $10 million in damages. (Michael Tarm and Jason Keyser)

NON-DEBATE POWER PLAYERS:

  1. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, introducing Clinton in New Hampshire yesterday, said: "There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” (The Guardian)
  2. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner predicted a record 550,000 votes will be cast Tuesday. He expects 282,000 Republican ballots and 268,000 Democratic ballots, second to the 272,000 cast in 2008. (Union Leader)
  3. Trump offered a New Hampshire veterans group a six-figure check if its leaders stood with him at a rally, but they refused. (The Daily Beast)
  4. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, recently purchased by GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, endorsed Rubio, calling him the “best-positioned to advance from the primary season and allow the G.O.P. to win the White House.” (New York Times)
  5. Ramping up for South Carolina, the Sanders campaign is paying more than 100 black canvasers $15 an hour — the national minimum wage he wants. “Half of his South Carolina team had previously worked on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns,” the Boston Globe reports.

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

-- The share of Twitter conversation: Trump, 29%; Rubio, 18%; Cruz, 14%; Bush, 9%; Christie, 8%.

-- The five most searched questions about Rubio on Google (see them for every candidate here):

  1. How old are Rubio's children?
  2. How many kids does Rubio have?
  3. What is Rubio religious affiliation?
  4. Where were Rubio's parents born?
  5. How old is Rubio?

-- The three most-tweeted about topics during the debate:

  1. Foreign Affairs and National Security
  2. Healthcare
  3. The Economy

-- The three moments that led to the biggest spike in tweets:

  1. Trump tells Bush to be quiet. Continues to be booed by audience.
  2. Rubio: "I think conservatism is about three things..."
  3. "There it is" --Christie to Rubio on his 25 second stump speech.

From the spin room:

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz raised eyebrows by levelling the same criticism at Republicans that she has received on her debate schedule:

Here's David Muir and Martha Raddatz of ABC News preparing for the debate:

Earlier, Trump attacked Jeb after Barbara Bush told the media she was "sick" of him:

Carly Fiorina was not happy to be excluded from the debate:

Jim Gilmore, the other candidate excluded from the debate, is running on a pro-puppy platform:

Many Republicans wished a happy birthday to Ronald Reagan:

Bernie switched up his website to reflect his appearance on SNL:

Here's a selection of photos from the New Hampshire campaign trail:

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

-- “In skeptical N.H., candidates outside the mainstream get attention,” by Michael Kranish and David A. Fahrenthold: This election comes at a frustrated moment in the country’s political history: With President Obama in the White House and Republicans controlling Congress, both sides feel that their agenda is largely blocked. In spite of much evidence that times are good, [New Hampshire] voters said their dominant emotion was fear … The result has been that New Hampshire voters — famous as the practical head to Iowa’s idealistic heart — have swung behind two candidates whose appeals are based not on pragmatism but on wildly ambitious, under-detailed plans to remake the nation … and impatience with government has become an obstacle for candidates who built their campaigns on their experience making government work. ‘I want to burn Washington down [too] because it’s so damn ineffective,’ Christie said last month … trying out a radical message to reach the people who want a fireman in Washington – and those who want an arsonist. ‘But who’s going to rebuild it?’”

-- “Long White House tradition nears end for a family descended from a slave,” by Juliet Eilperin: “The White House is a place defined by transients — presidents and political appointees who come and go after a term or two ... but the public and private rhythms of the White House have shaped John Wrory Ficklin’s daily life from the day he was born. He is the 10th member of his family — all children and grandchildren of a Virginia slave — to have worked in the White House. The streak may end with Ficklin, who retired as a special assistant to the president and senior director at the National Security Council … one month shy of his 60th birthday. His trajectory, from part-time pantry staffer to managing access to some of the nation’s most sensitive information, traces some of the profound cultural and societal shifts that have occurred in recent American history … ‘The fact that in two generations you can go from slavery to special assistant to the president is indicative of the progress we’ve made as a country,’ he said. ‘And I’m proud of it.’”

-- “Hope — and clean water — remains elusive for the people of Flint,” by Lenny Bernstein: “Residents have lived for years under some of the worst conditions in urban America: violent crime, poverty, unemployment and blight. Now the catastrophe of a water supply that may be poisoned indefinitely appears to be the final insult … ‘I’m going to give the city maybe six months,’ said Brittny Giles, a single mother who bathes 9-month-old daughter in bottled water and can recite her children’s blood lead levels from memory. ‘I don’t want to leave. But if there is no water or schools for my children, I have to give them a better future.’ The worst off may be the city’s disproportionate share of older people … stuck with homes that would have been difficult to sell even before the crisis. ‘What are we going to do?’ asked Kala Green, 72. ‘Ain’t nobody gonna buy our homes. And I don’t have no money.’ ‘Every step forward, there’s always five steps back,’ said Rodney Ott, owner of a bar and nightclub. ‘That’s the history of Flint… we’re a wreck, man.’”

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- “When Bernie Sanders ran against me in Vermont,” By Madeleine May Kunin: “Hillary Clinton is not the first progressive Democratic woman to be challenged by Bernie Sanders. He ran against me in 1986 when I was running for my second term as governor of Vermont … When Sanders was my opponent he focused like a laser beam on ‘class analysis.’ … He urged voters not to vote for me just because I was a woman. One of the criticisms Clinton has received is that she is not authentic, that she is too political and that she has been around for a long time so that she is a captive of various institutions … If we’re counting from when Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, he has been around for some time, too: 35 years. In part because [Sanders] is a man, he can run as the ultimate outsider. Clinton can’t be the outsider even as her very candidacy defies precedent … Sanders is brave, pairing Socialist with Democrat. He is a bold truth teller, and I am grateful that he has changed the conversation. He makes the answers sound easy, which in turn, makes him look authentic … But the answers are not simple. ‘We need a revolution,’ is more powerful than ‘I have a plan.’"

DAYBOOK: Still a New Hampshire-focused schedule, though Hillary Clinton will also go to Flint, Mich. Here's the rundown:

  • Clinton: Concord; Flint, Mich.
  • Sanders: Portsmouth
  • Kasich: Nashua, Concord
  • Trump: Plymouth
  • Rubio: Londonderry, Bedford, Hudson, Manchester
  • Bush: Salem, Nashua
  • Christie: Hampton, Exeter
  • Cruz: Peterborough, Keene
  • Fiorina: Keene, Manchester
  • Gilmore: Windham

The Super Bowl kicks off at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:

“Sitting on his campaign bus — laptop, turkey jerky, and coffee all nearby — Jeb Bush was befuddled over his campaign’s failure to capture more attention from the news media. ‘I could drop my pants,’ he said in an interview. ‘Moon the whole crowd. Everybody would be aghast, except the press guys would never notice.’” – The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

-- Today’s weather forecast in Washington: Partly cloudy, with highs in the 40s or 50s. Not too much in the way of wind, coming in at around 5-10 mph. (via Capital Weather Gang)

-- The Wizards lost to the Hornets 108-104.

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

The start of the debate was incredibly awkward, especially for Ben Carson, who missed his cue:

Here's a recap of the GOP debate in less than 3 minutes:

Watch Rubio and Christie go at it:

The candidates offered their Super Bowl predictions:

Here's Trump telling Bush to be quiet:

Hillary danced to Rachel Platten's Fight Song (for more politicians dancing, click here):

Kasich had a snowball fight with reporters following him:

The Clinton campaign launched its first Spanish-language ad, to run in Nevada ahead of this month's caucuses. “There is no other candidate who has fought as hard for our families as Hillary Clinton,” a narrator says. “She stands with us to achieve immigration reform and to keep families together. ... with a friend like Hillary, we keep moving forward.” Watch here:

Click below to see a pig (sorry, "socialist pig") doing tricks in Manchester: