In their last two presidential primaries, Republicans left New Hampshire with a much clearer view of who would become their party’s White House pick thanks to victories from eventual nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Whether the GOP will gain the same clarity Tuesday night might depend entirely on Marco Rubio’s performance — and if one of a trio of gubernatorial rivals can knock him off his new perch as the pick of the party establishment.
In a contest Donald Trump is favored to win – nearly every poll shows him with a comfortable advantage — the real drama will center on the first-term Florida senator. He began the Granite State primary with momentum after his strong third-place finish in Iowa, a showing that yielded a flurry of key endorsements and made him the favorite of center-right, establishment-oriented donors and voters.
But a disappointing performance during Saturday night’s debate, in which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mocked him for repeating the same criticism of President Obama four different times, has at least temporarily halted his coronation. And an establishment that a week ago assumed it would be rallying behind Rubio before next week's South Carolina primary might find itself fractured yet again if Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are able to steal a second-place finish.
“It was like Rubio was finally on the ladder climbing out of the pit, and he was almost there,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “And then Christie’s hand reached out and grabbed him and threw him back in the pit.
“If can’t finish solidly second and overcome all of this,” Scala added, “I’m not saying he’s done, but the race does get a lot more complicated than it would have been.”
Among Democrats, the New Hampshire primary looks much more pre-determined: Bernie Sanders holds a commanding advantage over Hillary Clinton in every poll of the race, and the Clinton campaign is readily conceding that it does not expect to win in the state that neighbors Sanders’s home of Vermont. The question in that contest is not whether Sanders wins, but if his win is large enough to give him enough momentum to help him in a pair of states that, because of their larger minority populations, are less demographically friendly to him — in Nevada and South Carolina.
The polls aren’t nearly so clear on the Republican side. They suggest second-place remains a jump ball among Rubio, Kasich, and — to a lesser extent — Bush, all of whom are clustered between 10 percent and 15 percent in recent surveys. Christie, Rubio’s tormenter in the debate, remains closer to five percent, but he and his supporters are hopeful that the months he’s spent diligently campaigning in New Hampshire and his performance Saturday will lift him to a late surge in support.
Trump, meanwhile, hovers above 30 percent, according to most of the polls, while the winner of the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz, draws support in the low double-digits. The senator from Texas is a more natural fit for the primary’s next contest, in Evangelical-heavy South Carolina, but a strong showing in New Hampshire could cement his place as not just a threat to win the nomination, but arguably the race’s new front-runner.
Rubio looked on track to become the nominating contest’s undisputed front-runner, raking up endorsements from GOP figures like Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. The latest sign he was consolidating support from the Republican establishment came Monday, when Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska endorsed her Senate colleague while calling him “inspiring” and someone who “will be a strong commander-in-chief.”
But if Fischer wasn’t turned away by Rubio’s showing in the debate, Republican strategists say actual voters might hold a different view. The short three-day timeline between the debate and the voting makes the effect almost impossible to predict, they argue.
“There’s no historic analogue to the devastation inflicted on Rubio in the debate this close to the New Hampshire primary,” said Steve Schmidt, who served as senior adviser to McCain during his 2008 bid for president.
The most direct consequence of the debate, he added, might be that second-place showing — if he barely tops Bush, Kasich, or Christie — might not be enough to nudge either of them out the race. Many Republicans had once believed that New Hampshire would winnow the field of candidates, giving whichever establishment candidate emerged an advantage in later contests when center-right GOP voters had only one option from which to choose.
“A second-place finish doesn’t ex-filtrate him from the consequences of the debate,” Schmidt said. “Because the candidates will rightly say people saw the real Marco Rubio, just not in time, and the more they see him the more he’s a depreciating asset in the market.”
Contact Roarty at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @Alex_Roarty.
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