If Rubio Falters in New Hampshire, Things Could Get Weird For Republicans

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If Rubio fails to put away his Establishment rivals, we could be looking at a two-way Trump-Cruz fight for the nomination before long.

The big question for Republicans as the good citizens of New Hampshire prepare to vote tomorrow is whether Saturday night’s candidate debate fundamentally changed anything (not as fundamentally, of course, as Marco Rubio says Barack Obama wants to change America, but enough to mess up Rubio’s day). A John Kasich super-pac wisely did a one-day snap poll and quickly got the results out since they showed both Kasich and Jeb Bush moving past Marco Rubio into second and third place, respectively. Independent pollsters had generally shown Kasich with a bit of a buzz even before the debate; one of the two tracking polls that captured Sunday’s sentiment (from ARG) had Kasich even with Rubio at 16 percent. A Monmouth poll that ended pre-debate on Saturday basically had Rubio, Kasich, Bush, and Cruz in a four-way tie. All indicators show at least as much voter volatility as in Iowa.  

What’s different from Iowa, of course, is that virtually no one is doubting Donald Trump will win in New Hampshire. And Ted Cruz’s exact order of finish probably doesn’t matter a great deal, either. Indeed, from the perspective of Team Cruz, keeping as many Establishment candidates alive as possible to mess with Marco Rubio might be worth a poor outcome for their own candidate in a state where his expectations have been low.

For any of the Governors (as they are generally being called at present) who top Rubio in New Hampshire, it means survival for another round. Chris Christie, Rubio’s tormenter Saturday night, has the most ground to make up in New Hampshire, and also has the weakest prospects going forward, with no particular state in sight where he has any kind of natural base until well down the road. It’s also pretty well-known from a long series of “murder-suicide” incidents in political contests that the candidate who damages a rival in a multi-candidate field is often not the beneficiary. 

So Kasich is the most likely Marco-beater tomorrow night, with Jeb Bush a decent possibility as well. Either or both would presumably move on to South Carolina, where they’d make an already-long-shot Rubio win over Trump and Cruz significantly more difficult. The same dynamics might be in play in the Super Tuesday primaries of March 1. But it’s unclear whether either of these worthies can hang on until March 15, when their home states hold winner-take-all primaries. In theory this is when Jeb, if he is still around and can somehow top not only his fellow Floridian but Trump and Cruz as well, could knock Rubio right out of the race. 

That’s a distant revenge fantasy for Jebbie’s long-suffering backers at present. But the more important point is that a Rubio fade in New Hampshire would provide massive incentives for the surviving governors to go after him with a clawhammer — even as Trump and Cruz pile up delegates in the relatively conservative, evangelical-heavy array of states on the near horizon. In other words, Rubio’s debate stumble could turn out to be the very moment the Establishment most feared. You’d best believe that at some of the choicest Beltway watering holes tomorrow night, there will be prayers that Rubio finishes ahead of the Governors after all and creates the three-man race that looked so likely just a few days ago.