It’s Officially Do-or-Die Time for Rubio’s Establishment Rivals

Saturday night’s debate in New Hampshire could present the last chance for three of the candidates. Photo: Getty Images

Marco Rubio has not, as some observers thought possible, blown the doors off his rivals in New Hampshire after his strong third-place finish in Iowa. But he has crept past both Ted Cruz and his most immediate opposition — fellow Establishmentarians Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie — to take second place in the last four published polls from the Granite State. With just four days to go until primary day, the major event with the potential to shake things up is Saturday night’s New Hampshire Republican debate on ABC.

Ted Cruz is under little pressure in New Hampshire, a state nobody expected him to do well in, given its relatively few conservative Evangelicals. He can look ahead to potentially strong showings in Nevada and South Carolina later this month, and then in the “SEC primary” on March 1. 

But for Bush, Kasich, and Christie, it may be now or never. 

Christie is in greatest danger from the scythe of the Great Winnower. Despite the boost he got from his early endorsement by the Union Leader, he’s now consistently running a poor sixth in the polls. Unlike Bush and Kasich, he does not have the oasis of a home-state primary on the near horizon; the big middle-Atlantic states don’t vote until late April, and New Jersey votes on the last day of the primary season in June. And he went into the final push for New Hampshire with less cash on hand than the other major candidates. Christie must have a boffo debate performance Saturday night or he’s almost certainly history.

It’s unclear exactly how much of its initially vast haul the pro-Bush super-pac Right to Rise has left to burn through, but Jeb at a minimum needs to finish ahead of Kasich and Christie in New Hampshire in order to make it to South Carolina, where he has some decent local resources, and then eventually to the duel to the death in the sun with Rubio in Florida.

Kasich is tenaciously holding on to what you might call the Jon Huntsman “proud moderate” position in the field, which gives him a chance for survival in New Hampshire, where Huntsman himself won 17 percent four years ago.

So all these gents need to outdo each other, and if possible, beat up on Marco Rubio, in the ABC debate. The latter should be a focus in everyone’s debate prep, since an unexpectedly poor showing by Young Marco might keep everybody alive. 

Well, nearly everybody. Carly Fiorina (and the largely invisible Jim Gilmore) didn’t make the cut for this debate, and the shrinking field means no more “kiddie table” or “undercard” events. From a broader perspective, the growing willingness of the remaining male candidates to savagely attack Hillary Clinton (Chris Christie keeps threatening to prosecute her, and more recently said he’d “beat her rear end” in a general-election debate) makes her unnecessary as the designated non-piggie Hillary-basher. She should now go back to enjoying whatever’s left of her golden parachute from HP

Do-or-Die Time for Rubio’s Establishment Rivals