Donald Trump looks certain to win the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night because he didn’t lose the Saturday night debate.
He didn’t win it either. Ohio Gov. John Kasich clearly won by pitching perfectly to the independent vote he has been wooing for months at town halls across the state. Enough to come in second behind Trump? Probably.
Which leaves Marco Rubio in third place Tuesday night, even though he had both the best moments of a Republican primary debate — his definition and defense of conservatism, his strong pro-life resolve, his mastery of foreign policy and especially terrorism issues — he also was judged by the vast majority of pundits to have had the worst moment in his now much commented upon exchange with Chris Christie.
I didn’t see it that way, but most people did, and the wisdom of the many is always to be consulted. (I thought Rubio was doggedly sticking to a general election theme, knowing he has to use these national stages to position himself against a former secretary of state.)
Rubio repeated a key line of his stump speech four times: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned that repetition into a negative even though most political professionals prize message discipline, especially in a presidential race. But Christie threw a roundhouse that most thought connected, though the same chattering class conceded that Rubio fought back with the most effective second half of the debate, thus leaving him secure in third place come Tuesday night.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had his best night of the campaign, but it will be South Carolina, not New Hampshire, that proves for him and us whether there are second acts in presidential primaries. Bush continues to wage a lonely war against Donald Trump, and he did his best on the issue of eminent domain, which is red meat for property rights enthusiasts, and they are many in the GOP primary.
A week ago Chris Christie told me he’d throw himself in front of a train to keep Johnny Manziel from going to the Dallas Cowboys. That line got a lot of laughs on and off my air, and after Saturday night we clearly know that Christie indeed knows how to throw himself in front of trains.
The attempted derailment of Rubio, though effective in the eyes of the scribblers, doesn’t seem to me to be a winning message for many voters who may be slow to warm to the guy who takes folks out. John Kasich and Jeb Bush will thank Christie, but had Christie used Kasich’s strategy with a lighter touch on Rubio, he might have gotten away with a good blow and then pivoted. But not after the exchange has been replayed a thousand times. Christie moves on, a dreaded fellow to cross, yes, but one who picks up votes thereby?
Now for the winner of Iowa, Senator Ted Cruz. He was eloquent throughout Saturday’s debate, but damaged by the necessary mea culpa at the start of the proceedings about the goings-on at the start of the Iowa caucuses. This was followed by Dr. Ben Carson, who seemed to first confer and then retract absolution for last week’s events. The exchange dampened the night for the Texan even as it clouded his week after victory, and Donald Trump brought it back to bookend his closing remarks.
Cruz’s moving story about the harrowing addiction of his sister added new depth to the public’s understanding of the senator, but New Hampshire isn’t Cruz’s turf. He may finish fifth or sixth, but no matter. The South is full of Cruz voters.
So as we approach Tuesday, I expect a Trump, Kasich, Rubio “win, place, show,” the start of a ten-day Armageddon immediately thereafter in South Carolina (featuring the return to the lists of President George W. Bush), and a few more steps down a path that leads ultimately to an open convention in Cleveland.
It takes 1,237 delegate votes to be nominated to run against Hillary Clinton. And for once my early June ballot in California may actually matter.
This column was originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com.