Sunday, February 07, 2016

This Fascinating Republican Race

I came back to the hotel from Hillary's rally around 9PM, and the Republican debate was already an hour old.  I watched the second half, with growing concern at what seemed to be another impressive Rubio performance, with his silky smooth answers on what it means to be a conservative, some depth and detail on foreign policy, and rhetoric attacking Democrats on abortion that I assume will play strongly to Republican audiences.  This was his moment to shine, consolidate his momentum out of Iowa as the Trump alternative with a strong 2nd place finish, and leave the others in his wake.  It looked to me like he might have taken it.

Except, turns out that first hour of the debate that I missed had a few rather important moments!  Immediately after it ended, all the pundits tried to outdo each other in bashing Rubio's performance.  As they should, given Christie's brutal evisceration of him as the scripted candidate that Rubio leapt right into with his absurd repetition, as close to a knock-out blow (albeit mostly self-inflicted) as you are likely to see. 

Rubio might have well lost his best chance at the nomination in that short span.  The moment to prove his detractors wrong came, and he absolutely blew it, reinforcing all the critiques (and maybe showing Democrats - and me - that he wouldn't be as strong against them as he might seem).  That sound is the door swinging open again for the also-rans to take advantage.  (Assuming of course that voters agree with the pundits and don't see the debate the way I saw the last hour or so, which is always possible.)

This race is now fascinatingly poised, precisely because the end game is so hard to see.  I have a hard time imagining how Trump wins a true head-to-head matchup against any of the other main candidates, except maybe Cruz.  But if the field doesn't narrow until late, then Trump could keep winning with a plurality of votes and take this by default. 

Cruz had a poor performance tonight and has been hurt badly by the Carson shenanigans (and his overall smarmy personality.)  If Rubio drops in New Hampshire as well, as now could happen, my money is on Kasich to surge into second here on Tuesday.  He was the first to be interviewed on the local channel on the local news, and he is falling over himself to brag about his 100 town halls and the mutual (he claims) love affair with New Hampshire.  He has nicely pitched his moderate, positive message.  Meanwhile, Rubio is the focus of attacks from the other two Governors.  The most prevalent attack ads here during the debate and on the local news coverage after were Jeb's PAC hitting Rubio on his lack of accomplishments.  With Hillary running left and presumably (in some voters' minds at least) not in danger of losing to Sanders, one or both of Kasich and Jeb could easily sway enough voters in the final days to leap frog Cruz and/or Rubio. 

Kasich coming 2nd and Bush doing well is probably a best case scenario for Trump, as is the recent antagonism between Cruz and Carson, who before may have been potential allies.  How does the field coallesce in those scenarios?   Can Rubio or Cruz rebound strongly enough later?  Can Kasich (or even low-energy Jeb?) catch on quickly enough in later states to force out the other candidates and take on Trump directly?  And what is the actual ceiling on Trump's potential vote with fewer candidates in the field, on Super Tuesday and beyond? 

Damned if I know.  Easy now to see how this could go all the way to the floor of the convention.  Having seen Hillary tonight, one thing is for sure.  Clinton v. Trump would be box office gold.  If it happened... those debates... oh boy.  As C.J. Cregg might say, it would be a sight to see.  I mean a sight to see.    


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