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.