NASHUA, N.H. -- What will happen in Tuesday's Republican primary here? First, let's examine the unlikely possibility that someone other than Donald Trump could win the state. Again, this is highly unlikely, as The Donald has amassed a “yuge” lead, but of course it's still possible; New Hampshire likes to surprise us, likes to keep us guessing.
If this does happen, the most likely outcome would be that the Trump phenomenon would be officially over. That doesn’t necessarily mean he would drop out, but it does mean that he should . Think about it, this “winner” will have now lost not one, but two consecutive contests — the last one after blowing a big lead in the Granite State.
One suspects the incessant media coverage and exciting bandwagon effect — two important forces helping propel Trump-ism — would dry up. When it comes to Tuesday, the “Ricky Bobby” adage would probably be true: If Trump ain’t first, he’s last. And, of course, whoever would supplant Trump would get a bump.
This would especially be true if it were the winner of the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz. This is all highly unlikely. Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire, with its more secular and moderate voters, seems a more natural fit for the thrice-married New York casino magnate, and much less a natural fit for the evangelical Cruz.
So, say Trump wins on Tuesday. Now, the real question is: Who finishes second?
If Marco Rubio finishes second then this becomes a three-man race between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Actually, this probably happens even if Rubio finishes thir d, so long as he finishes ahead of John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie. This would essentially mean that Rubio owns the “establishment” lane, while Cruz and Trump would compete for the “outsider” vote. This scenario favors Rubio, especially as we head into winner-take-all primary states like Ohio and Florida.
Of course, it won’t be easy. Rubio is going to be taking fire from all the other candidates who believe that New Hampshire is their last, best hope for the nomination. In some cases, one suspects this is more about killing Rubio than boosting their own chances. Regardless, Rubio will have to fight for the right to own his lane.
Naturally, he wasn’t helped by his poor debate performance on Saturday night, when it became clear he was sticking with rehearsed talking points. This was damaging both because it confirmed the negative narrative that Rubio’s adversaries like Christie had been advancing, as well as because it undermines Rubio’s strength as an eloquent communicator who can beat Hillary Clinton.
He picked a bad night to have a bad debate. What is more, the “governors” running to supplant Rubio as the “establishment” candidate seem to (finally) be gaining steam.
Something seems to have happened to Jeb Bush. He’s campaigning more joyously. He's out there smiling, throwing snowballs. One theory, which makes a lot of sense to me, is that he has been relieved of the burden of thinking he actually can win the presidency. Freed from the encumbrance of actually trying to win, he has been liberated to focus on simply destroying his old friend Rubio—you know, the once-in-a-generation wunderkind who could save the GOP.
The good news for Rubio is that Christie doesn’t appear to have caught fire in New Hampshire the way some of us thought he might. He planted himself in the state, held town hall meetings, and was adept at discussing local issues better than anyone else in the field. But at some point, he decided to try to take down Rubio (a.k.a. “Bubble Boy”) and this, perhaps ironically, doesn’t seem to have helped him. Even his devastating takedown of Rubio during the ABC debate probably hurt Rubio more than it helped Christie. It’s a phenomenon sometimes referred to in politics as a “murder-suicide.”
Kasich is another matter. At the national level, Kasich is a joke who seems to think the way to win the Republican nomination is by airing his grievances. The Ohio governor is basically the “Festivus” candidate for president. He’s also the guy that liberal elites think should be the GOP nominee, which tells you all you need to know about why he won’t be. But in New Hampshire, one gets the sense he might fit right in. One gets the sense that Kasich, who had a good debate on Saturday, might very well appeal to some quirky and contrarian New Hampshire voters, and this could pose a problem for Rubio.
The big story is that Rubio probably missed his chance to close the deal by becoming the de facto “establishment” candidate come Wednesday morning. And this likely means that, unlike as in Iowa, where the results forced a Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee exodus, we may see less clarity and more “muddle” coming out of the Granite State. Come Wednesday, I'm betting the forecast will still be murky.
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