Sunday has the Super Bowl. And Tuesday has a New Hampshire primary that might prove to be one of the most intense, intriguing and complex political contests in American history.
“It’s like an eight-level Chinese checkers kind of deal, or is there a Chinese chess maybe? It’s very complicated,” said Dave Carney, the New Hampshire campaign consultant who has served as a top political adviser to Gov. Greg Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry. “But you have seven days, a lot can happen, and people are buying Super Bowl ads.”
Super PACs backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as the Rubio campaign itself, are all buying time for the Super Bowl broadcast and the pregame show, according to Ad Age.
But as of Tuesday, it was Cruz, arriving in New Hampshire after his solid victory in the Iowa caucuses Monday, who was in the most enviable position.
“Cruz is running a very thoughtful, methodical campaign that’s based on message and mechanics and money,” Carney said. “Unlike (former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee or (former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick) Santorum, who won Iowa and said, ‘OK. I won Iowa. Now what do I do? Take a Greyhound bus to New Hampshire or South Carolina?'”
Carney said that Cruz has a clear shot at picking up the lion’s share of the roughly third of the New Hampshire primary electorate that resemble the voters he won in a Iowa — conservative, evangelical and pro-life. And that’s enough for a candidate who probably can’t and doesn’t need to win outright in New Hampshire, where Trump, who came in second in Iowa, is the front-runner, and Rubio is seeking to ride the lift of his strong third-place Iowa finish to greater success in New Hampshire.
Rubio in a box
Rubio is staking his claim for the nomination on the proposition that he is best suited to defeat Hillary Clinton — or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — in the general election.
“Marco Rubio is the candidate who can win,” touts his newest ad.
“There probably will be a coalescing around one mainstream candidate at some point, and right now it looks like Rubio is that person,” Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney said.
But Carney predicts Rubio will get ground up in the Granite State.
“I think Rubio is in a box,” Carney said. “He’s got to stomp on these other guys in his lane, and they are going to stomp on him, no question about it. No way (Ohio Gov. John) Kasich and (New Jersey Gov. Chris) Christie and (former Florida Gov. Jeb) Bush are going to give it up in the next seven days.”
Christie spent Tuesday issuing a series of taunts of Rubio as “the boy in the bubble,” protected by his staff from press gaggles.
“Let’s get the boy in the bubble out the bubble,” Christie said. “I’m ready to play. Let’s hope he is.”
Rubio’s biggest problem, Carney said, is he is simply not as dug in in New Hampshire as Christie, Kasich and Bush, all of whom are chasing the same voters and have common purpose in dimming Rubio’s luster.
“If one of the other three establishment guys had broken out in Iowa that would be a totally different game, because they are much better organized here in New Hampshire to take advantage of it,” Carney said. “Rubio is just not that well organized. He is just going off momentum, which will help him a little bit, but I just don’t see these other three guys collapsing to a point where Rubio is a clear winner here.”
Carney also said that Rubio’s electability argument has lost power as Republicans have come to see Clinton as a tarnished and vulnerable candidate.
“A year ago that would have been a much more powerful message,” Carney said.
Trump faces a variation on the winner’s dilemma.
“So now we can stop with the Donald Trump inevitability,” Christie said. “The guy who has done nothing but win, lost.”
“A lot of his appeal was that he was a larger-than-life winner,” Pitney said. “Now that he’s a life-size loser, will people be less interested?”
Iowa demonstrated the difference between Cruz’s state-of-the-art voter analytics and ground game, and Trump’s more or less winging it.
It’s too late to create a really effective infrastructure in New Hampshire, but Carney said Trump could hurriedly try to put something together in time for later contests.
Does Trump have that kind of campaign in him?
“It was going to be fun,” Carney said. “I get on a plane, I go give a speech, everyone loves me, and I fly home,”
“The trap for Trump,” Pitney said, is that if he becomes more like a traditional candidate, “he risks becoming less Trump-like”
It was a humble Trump who conceded in Iowa on Monday night, musing sentimentally from the stage, “I think I might come here and buy a farm.”
Could a chastened Trump inspire his faithful that he can make America great again?
“He seemed dejected. That’s how he sounded last night,” said Michael Dennehy, who ran John McCain’s winning New Hampshire campaign and managed Rick Perry’s New Hampshire campaign, which ended in September.
Dennehy said that Trump is still in good shape in New Hampshire if he shakes off Iowa.
“His supporters thrive on his energy,” Dennehy said.
Dennehy said he thinks Rubio has to place at least second in New Hampshire to move on.
There is no momentum in successive third-place finishes, he said.
For Rubio, Christie, Bush, Kasich and now Trump, New Hampshire might be do or die.
“He has to win New Hampshire. Period,” Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic strategist who backs Clinton, said of Trump.
But, Cruz he said, has history on his side.
“No nonincumbent president in the GOP has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire. Not Ronald Reagan. Not George W. Bush,” Begala said. “So New Hampshire is all upside for Cruz. Unlike previous Iowa winners like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, Cruz has staying power: money and organization that can easily sustain him if and when he loses New Hampshire. Cruz is now in a strong position.”
American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman is spending the next eight days in New Hampshire, following Ted Cruz and other GOP candidates. He has covered Texas politics since 1979 and every presidential campaign since 1988.
Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove spent the past two weeks in Iowa, his second stint there this year. He has covered the Cruz campaign since it launched last year.
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