New Hampshire Debate: Trump Up, Rubio Down
The New Hampshire primary has been a muddled mess with prevailing wisdom running counter to itself in about four different directions depending on the day’s (phony) polling. That’s why Saturday night’s New Hampshire debate was so important in providing clarity. Especially since the quick turnaround until the voting begins on Tuesday leaves little time to rectify any narrative cast in its aftermath.
And that’s good news for Donald Trump and bad news for Marco Rubio.
That’s why I’m choosing to grade how each of the seven Republican presidential candidates performed based on how the New Hampshire debate plays into their individual big picture strategy, more so than as a stand-alone performance.
Trump’s individual performance really wasn’t that great. The crowd was clearly against him and he got booed, and he even managed to lose an exchange with Jeb Bush. However, he was the only candidate on that stage with a built-in base of support in New Hampshire. And since this debate is likely to make it difficult for any challenger to do to him what Ted Cruz did to him in Iowa – coalesce a larger base than he has – Trump is the big winner Saturday night. He’s likely to be the winner on Tuesday night, too.
Speaking of Jeb, his campaign has been fledgling for months, but for the first time in many months it probably feels emboldened at the moment. The debate crowd was pro-Bush, and he seemed to feed off of that. Better yet, his primary foil – Marco Rubio – was lambasted in the debate. If Rubio doesn’t win New Hampshire on Tuesday night, look for Bush to stay in for the long haul now. Making the case beginning Wednesday morning that Rubio had his chance and couldn’t close the sale, therefore it’s time for the establishment to come home in time for the post-March 15th winner-take-all moderate state primaries.
For the first time in the debate schedule, John Kasich wasn’t the most unlikable candidate on the stage and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With Chris Christie doing damage to Rubio, Kasich was left alone to make his own personal appeal to Granite State voters. Kasich’s is a one-state strategy relying on New Hampshire to launch him from here. I still wouldn’t predict him to pull it off on Tuesday night, but given the mercurial history of the state’s primary voters I wouldn’t totally rule it out, either.
Only because I’m not sure how much blood-sport New Hampshire voters are willing to tolerate did I not give Christie an A, for he was the strongest candidate on the stage yet again. As I’ve said before, Christie’s liberal politics are not my cup of tea, and his comment that killing an unborn child is “self-defense” was morally heinous. But if you only judged the candidates based on the combined strength of their debate performances, Christie has arguably been the strongest. However, up until this point it hasn’t helped him. Will he get the credit for bludgeoning Rubio, or will someone else benefit from his handiwork?
If I was assessing Cruz strictly based on his own performance, I’d probably rank it a C instead of a B (I have high expectations for my candidate). I thought he was too gracious to Ben Carson’s faux sanctimony campaign – again – and was too willing to let opportunities to shine on issues pass him by in the latter stages. Especially because there were moments in the middle of the debate he substantively dominated on issues like North Korea and immigration.
Cruz should generally look to assert himself on issues because when it’s about issues he wins, and when it’s not about issues, well, he needs to turn it back to issues. Nevertheless, it’s no secret the Cruz campaign sees Rubio as its biggest obstacle to the nomination. Thus, the likelihood Rubio will come out of New Hampshire a weaker candidate than he entered it moves Cruz to a higher grade.
Perhaps the best line anybody had in the debate was when Rubio said “I’d rather lose an election than be wrong on life.” Unfortunately, that came long after Rubio suffered through the worst hour any candidate has had to endure so far during these debates. As the former federal prosecutor, Christie dissembled and destroyed Rubio like he was a hostile witness on the stand in a show-trial. Christie so brutalized Rubio that had it continued he likely could’ve been charged with assault afterwards. True, Cruz didn’t have a great debate performance right before Iowa, and it didn’t stop him from winning the state on Monday, but that’s apples and oranges. Cruz’s base is not like Rubio’s, and Iowa is not the same as New Hampshire. First, one is a lower-turnout caucus driven more by organization than media. The other is a higher-turnout primary driven more by media than organization. Secondly, Cruz’s base is grassroots driven, and almost immune to media narratives. But Rubio’s candidacy is driven largely by media narrative, as in the case of his greatest alleged third place finish since primates crawled out of the primordial soup. And when you’re driven by media narrative, you die by media narrative. The post-debate coverage, even on Rubio-friendly Fox, was brutal to Rubio. Creating a narrative that will be tough to overcome in only 48 hours.
It was a terrible night all around for Carson, beginning with his awkward refusal to enter the stage when his name was called. Then after claiming he wanted to take the high road on the fake Cruz flap, he proceeded to overplay the sanctimony card like any pure politician would by attacking Cruz anyway. Even cynically politicizing the tragic death of one of his volunteers during the caucus campaign. From there he didn’t give a single answer all night that didn’t begin with some whiny comment about his lack of air time, further diminishing himself. The irony of this week is that if Carson had taken the high road on the Cruz matter after receiving several apologies (that I don’t believe he was owed), he could’ve really elevated himself. But by doing no campaigning all week, and instead only looking for every opportunity in the media to kamikaze Cruz, Carson now looks like just another bitter politician. I’m sure his personal echo chamber is cheering him on, but this won’t work for Carson like it didn’t work for Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, or Rick Santorum. All of whom went down the same road before seeing their support plummet to low single digits and then dropping out.
Finally, here’s what’s at stake on Tuesday for every candidate not named Cruz—the Republican Party has never nominated a candidate that didn’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire. Cruz won Iowa, so if history is any indication whoever doesn’t win New Hampshire on Tuesday may face insurmountable odds for the nomination.
First published at Conservative Review
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