Off to the Races

GOP Establishment in a Tizzy

After Rubio’s robotic debate, no mainstream candidate looks ready to pull away.

Marco Rubio stumbles in New Hampshire
AP Photo/John Locher
Feb. 8, 2016, 8 p.m.

For lead­ers of the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment, things could not look much worse. They des­per­ately need one of the four con­ven­tion­al, main­stream can­did­ates—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, or Marco Ru­bio—to pull away and con­sol­id­ate that wing of the party, the way Ted Cruz has done on the Right. But after Ru­bio’s ro­bot­ic de­bate show­ing, it looks less likely now that the New Hamp­shire primary will win­now the field as much as they hoped.

We will all know a lot more by Tues­day night, but a few things are already ap­par­ent. While Don­ald Trump will al­most cer­tainly win the New Hamp­shire primary, he is not go­ing to dom­in­ate it or many oth­er places the way polls were show­ing just a month or two ago. Trump was av­er­aging about 35 per­cent of the GOP vote in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and na­tion­ally, mean­ing that 65 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans were not for the bom­bast­ic real-es­tate mogul. Pre­sum­ably his sup­port­ers were fa­mil­i­ar with him, and they liked at least some of what he said, the way he said it, and the way he po­si­tioned him­self as an anti-politi­cian can­did­ate. That is still true, but knock about 10 points off his poll num­bers. He’s av­er­aging about 25 per­cent, with 75 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans not for him. So this is no longer Trump versus the field; this is just a steady Trump with about a quarter of the vote.

Ru­mors of the de­mise of Ben Car­son’s can­did­acy were pre­ma­ture, though ul­ti­mately not wrong. He is no longer a ma­jor factor in the race; he just hasn’t dropped out as Mike Hucka­bee, Rand Paul, and Rick San­tor­um have.

Es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans ser­i­ously doubt that Trump could win a gen­er­al elec­tion. Even if he did, they don’t think he has the faintest idea how to gov­ern or the tem­pera­ment to deal with Con­gress and world lead­ers. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, he has a simplist­ic and shal­low un­der­stand­ing of is­sues and pub­lic policy. But for all of the con­tempt they have for Trump, those same es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures des­pise Cruz. In 43 years in Wash­ing­ton, all on and around Cap­it­ol Hill, I have nev­er seen any­one ali­en­ate more people, in both cham­bers and on both sides of the aisle, more deeply than Cruz has. He thought it polit­ic­ally be­ne­fi­cial to ant­ag­on­ize the es­tab­lish­ment, and he did an amaz­ingly ef­fect­ive job of it, too well for his own good. So the es­tab­lish­ment is now faced with a po­ten­tial choice of shoot­ing it­self in the head or stabbing it­self in the heart (you can de­cide which man rep­res­ents each op­tion).  

None of the can­did­ates favored by the es­tab­lish­ment seems cap­able of pulling away from the oth­er three. After his sur­pris­ingly strong show­ing in Iowa, Ru­bio looked like he might do it, but his shock­ingly bad de­bate per­form­ance Sat­urday night squelched his mo­mentum in New Hamp­shire, and track­ing polls show him los­ing alti­tude. The same polling is show­ing both Bush and Kasich mov­ing up and passing Ru­bio. Christie’s strong de­bate per­form­ance and the abund­ance of late-de­cid­ing voters pre­clude writ­ing him off either.  

How much win­now­ing oc­curs de­pends on who comes in first among the four con­ven­tion­al can­did­ates, who is second, the size of the gap between the two, and wheth­er the third and fourth can­did­ates are in hail­ing range. Ru­bio will cer­tainly sur­vive New Hamp­shire, but for the oth­er three, it’s now or nev­er.

Ru­bio’s chal­lenge is how to re­gain his foot­ing as a smooth, ar­tic­u­late can­did­ate without ap­pear­ing overly pro­grammed. In the de­bate, he was a hu­man juke­box: Hit C-7 and you knew ex­actly what you’d hear. Staffers and con­sult­ants prize a can­did­ate who stays on mes­sage, but not to the point of sound­ing scrip­ted or ro­bot­ic. At a small din­ner that a group of us had with Ru­bio early last year, he came across as smart, poised, and dis­cip­lined, but a little too well-re­hearsed, a little too canned. At a sim­il­ar small din­ner in Ju­ly with Cruz, he was dis­cip­lined as well, but you could al­most see the wheels turn­ing in his head as he for­mu­lated an­swers. Noth­ing was canned with him.

If the es­tab­lish­ment doesn’t co­alesce be­hind a can­did­ate soon, it will have to fig­ure out a way to make peace with Cruz. He’d be hard to love, but pos­sible to tol­er­ate.

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