NASHUA, N.H. — Let’s dispel with the notion that moments don’t matter and that the media over-hyped Rubio’s bad debate. Minutes after the last Republican debate ended, I went on CNN and declared that it had been a disastrous night for [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore]. And I wrote the very same thing on this very blog on Monday. Tuesday’s results seem to confirm this point.
Now, I’m far from a Rubio hater. Keep in mind that just hours earlier, I had published a column in the Telegraph calling Rubio a “once-in-a-generation candidate.” I was fully prepared to declare that after New Hampshire it would be a three-man race between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. But anyone intellectually honest who watched that debate couldn’t help but cringe—couldn’t help but see that Rubio had missed his moment.
Making matters worse, Team Rubio chose to pretend nothing bad happened. They chose to tout big fundraising numbers—in order to downplay the damage done. Rush Limbaugh even (sort of) defended Rubio, providing more false hope. For days, we were told that the media was overplaying Rubio’s bad performance. Some polls even seemed to confirm this. As a result, Rubio didn’t concede the mistake—didn’t stem the bleeding—until after the New Hampshire results were in, when he finally admitted he had a very bad night on Saturday.
As the country music song declared: It’s a little too late to do the right thing now. My gut (and let’s be fair, almost every analyst was united on this one) turned out to be correct; Rubio’s momentum coming out of Iowa was effectively killed on Saturday.
With Rubio sidelined, the next obvious question was this: Who would come in second in the Granite State? It was, after all, correctly assumed Donald Trump would win. But who else would get a ticket out of the first primary?
I wasn’t 100 percent confident saying this, but I did correctly predict Ohio Governor John Kasich would finish second. Being here in New Hampshire helped inform this prediction. There’s something about Kasich that matches the contrarian attitude of the Live Free or Die state. What is more, the fact that non-affiliated voters are allowed to vote in the primaries rewards candidates who are perceived as moderate and authentic.
But here’s the thing: Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m skeptical Kasich can replicate this in other states where conservative voters matter a lot more in primaries. My guess is that Tuesday night will be the highlight of Kasich’s 2016 campaign.
So the really interesting point is that I think the big winner of the night is [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore]. The primaries are about to head South, which is Cruz country. Unlike other Evangelical candidates who win Iowa but can’t parlay that into more, Cruz’s respectable finish in New Hampshire demonstrates that he’s not simply a regional candidate.
If you think about what happened on Tuesday night, Cruz swapped a serious rival (Rubio) for a guy who likely is a one-hit wonder (Kasich). That’s a trade he will take every day and twice on Sundays. Because the “establishment” lane is now muddled and muddy (even Jeb Bush is looking better these days!), there is a real danger that mainstream conservative voters could begin to coalesce around Cruz as the best, last hope to stop Donald Trump.
We’re not quite there yet. There’s still a chance that someone else could emerge. Maybe Rubio pulls out a surprise win in South Carolina? It ain’t over till it’s over. But we are getting dangerously close to entering a stage where it becomes a Trump vs. Cruz race.
Note: The author’s wife previously advised Ted Cruz’s race for U.S. Senate.