What was once described as the “deepest” bench of Republican candidates for President has been winnowed down to two political neophytes, two first-term U.S. Senators, and a two-term governor with almost no chance of winning.
Eight months ago Donald Trump entered the race for President as a laughingstock and is now the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. In just the past week, he insulted the most recent Republican ex-President in front of more than 10 million debate viewers using talking points that sounded like they came from Moveon.org or Code Pink, got skewered by the Pope, and dismissed out of hand any changes to Social Security or Medicare. The end result? He won the South Carolina primary going away. The breadth and depth of Trump’s win was across the board - he won moderates and fought Ted Cruz to a tie among evangelicals. He also won the military vote even as he had questioned whether the Bush Administration had lied about WMD in Iraq.
Meanwhile, his closest two competitors are the most hated man in the Senate (Ted Cruz) and one of his colleagues (Marco Rubio) who has a penchant for giving victory speeches when he loses and had arguably the single worst debate meltdown since Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle he was no Jack Kennedy. Lagging behind those two men are Ben Carson, whose entire campaign appears to have been an elaborate direct order mail fundraising scheme that collected money to pay for more direct mail fundraising (there is a less polite name for it, but I won’t go there), and John Kasich, the two-term Ohio Governor and former U.S. Congressman who had a brief moment in the New Hampshire sun (2nd place) that now seems like a hundred years ago.
Where do we go from here? The Nevada caucuses are in two days and then seven days after that the so-called “SEC Primary” will hand out nearly a quarter of all primary delegates. Polling has been spotty in most places, but most show Trump ahead, with a few exceptions (Texas, where Cruz is narrowly winning and Minnesota, the one state Rubio may actually be able to win). Jeb Bush’s scant support can now be distributed, though polling suggests the impact will be negligible other than in the race for donor dollars (which have not moved the needle against Trump).
In fact, while the conventional wisdom is that most deep-pocketed donors will move from Bush to Rubio based on amorphous “electability,” I would not be surprised if Kasich gets a second look, especially if Bush endorses him. While Rubio projects youth and vigor, he has also shown that when pressed, he will fold, not a comforting thought if Trump trains his rhetorical sights on the Florida Senator. Chris Christie’s exposure of Rubio’s soft underbelly would trouble me if I were a Republican bigwig, whereas Kasich’s blue collar roots, lengthy resume and residency in the Ohio Governor’s mansion would seem like the safer bet. Cruz is radioactive to D.C. Republicans and has not shown he can expand his base beyond very conservative and/or highly religious voters.
Ultimately, it may not matter. Trump has a solid core of support that cannot be moved and the idea that as more people drop out their supporters will coalesce around a single alternative like Rubio is dubious. The key for Trump is whether he can continue “telling it like it is” while refining his message enough to give comfort that if he wins the nomination he will not blow up the country. The reality is that if anyone besides Trump had performed so strongly in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and likely Nevada, no one would question whether that person would win the nomination; but because Trump’s candidacy is so outside the box of conventional Beltway thinking, they *still* cannot get their heads around that idea.
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