With five candidates grouped within a 10-point bracket well behind New Hampshire winner Donald Trump, it might be tempting to say we have a newly widened field with potential for a crowded race toward — and even beyond — Super Tuesday, March 1.
Resist that temptation.
Yes, John Kasich came in a strong second. Yes, Jeb Bush actually achieved double digits. Yes, Marco Rubio has not fully imploded. Yet.
But the greatest likelihood is that New Hampshire set the stage as providentially as possible for an eventual one-on-one home stretch featuring Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Chris Christie tried to position himself as the tough talker, but his debate-stage blows scored against Marco Rubio did not help him in the least. Christie actually performed well in most debates, but the straight-shooter marketplace was already filled with Trump and Cruz.
Kasich’s strong finish in New Hampshire is a one-time gift. He ran well in a state where Republicans display, and sometimes reward, an occasional liberal stripe. That flavor is not as popular in the vast majority of states that lie immediately ahead.
Jeb Bush still has a lot of money, but lags far behind both Trump and Cruz in South Carolina in the most recent polls. Those were taken about three weeks ago, but Trump and Cruz have only strengthened their hands since then.
And therein lies Rubio’s problem. It is hard to see any finish higher than third for him in the Palmetto State, not exactly the right tonic for a guy who needs a miracle.
Rubio’s wound is purely self-inflicted. Riding high after a strong third in Iowa, he allowed Chris Christie to put him on the ropes on a debate stage, the worst place for even a momentary loss of poise. Ask Rick Perry.
Even if that hiccup cost him only one percentage point, that would have been the difference between finishing fifth and finishing third. He told supporters Tuesday night that the stubbed toe in the debate was on him, and that it “will never happen again.”
That’s lovely, but if Rubio is thinking of things to assure voters they will not see again, how about his Gang of Eight adventure, where he was flat-out rolled by amnesty advocates in both parties? That large and insufficiently cleansed sin, plus the debate fumble, allow doubters to wonder if he is resilient enough for the presidency. That may be wildly unfair, but as every candidate should know, campaigns are often unfair.
Rubio will try for two better nights in South Carolina — debate night and election night — while Kasich and Bush try to ride the momentary surge of New Hampshire’s jumper cables.
But this brings a reversal of a recent trend. Conservatives, grassroots populists and libertarians usually see their candidates atomized across a wide field while an establishment favorite shoots through the gap to the nomination.
This time it is the donor-class, comfort-zone favorites who are splitting the vote, to the benefit of the two names that strike fear into the hearts of ivory-tower kingmakers: Trump and Cruz.
Cruz has energized conservatives like no other candidate since Reagan. Trump has support from the right and a wide cross-section of other voters, broadening his appeal like no one else, maybe ever.
Those attributes are likely to be rewarded in South Carolina. So enjoy those “crowded race” stories; they may last only a few days.
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