Against the Grain

Cracks in the Granite for Rubio

A shaky debate performance raises doubts about his place atop the GOP in New Hampshire.

Marco Rubio at Saturday night's Manchester debate.
AP Foto/David Goldman
Feb. 7, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

In New Hamp­shire, front-run­ning Don­ald Trump has been slip­ping in the polls. Marco Ru­bio, who entered the week with all the mo­mentum, stumbled in Sat­urday’s de­bate when he re­peated the same lines in re­sponse to Chris Christie’s at­tack that he’s a scrip­ted pol. Christie, who had the best night of those on stage, is non­ethe­less polling near the bot­tom of the pack. And Jeb Bush is still strug­gling to hit double di­gits in polls. What gives?

— Ohio Gov. John Kasich didn’t have his strongest de­bate per­form­ance Sat­urday, but it was good enough. By fo­cus­ing on his op­tim­ist­ic, cent­rist mes­sage and avoid­ing hits from his op­pon­ents, he’s poised to pull off a sur­prise Tues­day night. He oc­cu­pies a unique niche in the field, run­ning as a mod­er­ate in one of the few states where they play a con­sequen­tial role in a GOP primary. Kasich’s de­cision to skip Iowa and fo­cus all his en­ergy on New Hamp­shire could well pay off.

— For all the cri­ti­cism of Ru­bio after the de­bate, he still is well-po­si­tioned for a strong New Hamp­shire show­ing. The two most-likely al­tern­at­ives for Ru­bio sup­port­ers have their own bag­gage. Bush’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity scores have con­sist­ently been me­diocre, and his policy views are nearly in­dis­tin­guish­able from Ru­bio’s. It’s hard to ima­gine that mil­lions in su­per PAC money couldn’t de­throne Ru­bio, but that a de­bate slip-up would take him down. And by be­ing the hatchet man, Christie may have stun­ted Ru­bio’s mo­mentum, but it’s still dif­fi­cult to see a can­did­ate in the back of the pack sur­ging to the front at the last minute. If any­one gains from the Ru­bio pile-on, it’s Kasich and Ted Cruz.

— Trump is locked in­to his 25 per­cent blue-col­lar slice of the elect­or­ate and hasn’t been able to turn his for­tunes around in New Hamp­shire, miss­ing a town hall and get­ting booed at the de­bate. But thanks to the splintered field, that might be enough to win. After Iowa, it looked very plaus­ible that Ru­bio would con­sol­id­ate enough es­tab­lish­ment sup­port to make a run for first place. After the de­bate, it looks less likely.   

Ru­bio’s strategists fore­cast a second-place fin­ish in New Hamp­shire, so if he can’t live up to those ex­pect­a­tions, the race head­ing in­to South Car­o­lina will be as muddled as ever. That would mean we’d see Cruz and Trump scrap­ping for the same types of voters down South, while Ru­bio will square off against a GOP gov­ernor, one who shares many of his views but one who also will ham­mer him on his lack of ex­per­i­ence.

TRAIL MIX

1. Don’t ex­pect Bush to drop out of the pres­id­en­tial race, no mat­ter what hap­pens in the New Hamp­shire primar­ies Tues­day. His broth­er, former Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, is already slated to cam­paign for him in South Car­o­lina. His su­per PAC’s ad fea­tur­ing the former pres­id­ent is air­ing only in South Car­o­lina. Bush ad­visers are telling donors that he’s in the race for the long haul—with one ally even ar­guing that he’s in the race un­til Cali­for­nia (on June 7!). Their think­ing: There’s still room for an op­por­tun­ity for an ex­per­i­enced can­did­ate to gain ground—and with Ru­bio’s much-mocked de­bate per­form­ance, the field is as wide open as ever. But if Bush can’t even hit double di­gits in New Hamp­shire, it’s hard to see how that ar­gu­ment holds up.

2. After Ru­bio ex­ceeded ex­pect­a­tions in the Iowa caucuses, he re­ceived a slew of con­gres­sion­al en­dorse­ments—from Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Sen. Tim Scott of South Car­o­lina, Rep. Lynn West­mo­re­land of Geor­gia, and Rep. Matt Sal­mon of Ari­zona. There will be more to come. We’re hear­ing that Sen. Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Sen. Dan Sul­li­van of Alaska, and Sen. Deb Fisc­her of Neb­raska are all plan­ning to line up with Team Ru­bio—with stra­tegic­ally timed an­nounce­ments com­ing down the road.

3. Bush’s heated ex­change with Trump over em­in­ent do­main got over­shad­owed by the Ru­bio-Christie joust, but it was just as con­sequen­tial. Bush got the bet­ter of Trump, flus­ter­ing the busi­ness­man when at­tack­ing him for raz­ing an eld­erly wo­man’s home to build a casino park­ing lot. Trump then mocked the Manchester de­bate audi­ence as be­ing filled with donors and spe­cial in­terests. We’ve be­come so ac­cus­tomed to as­sum­ing that Trump is Te­flon, but that wasn’t a good fi­nal look for him.

4. Over­looked in the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign: Sen. Rob Port­man of Ohio came out against the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship last week. Port­man, the top trade of­fi­cial un­der George W. Bush, is re­spond­ing to the grow­ing pop­u­list surge with­in his party. But his flip-flop on the is­sue shows what a dif­fi­cult race he faces against former Gov. Ted Strick­land. Port­man, des­pite be­ing highly re­spec­ted in Wash­ing­ton, has struggled to con­nect with the blue-col­lar base that makes up much of the GOP elect­or­ate in Ohio. He badly needs a strong top-of-the-tick­et Re­pub­lic­an to help his reelec­tion chances.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of the story mis­stated Ru­bio’s fin­ish in the Iowa caucuses; he fin­ished third.

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