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.
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.