Fox Business is hosting another Republican debate this Thursday. Things will look a little different this time around with new rules about who qualifies for the main stage. Only the top six candidates in national polls will earn a slot. At the moment, they would be Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush. Any candidate polling in the top five in Iowa or New Hampshire – the first two states to vote – would also qualify, but no candidate outside the top six nationally is so fortunate. (Update: John Kasich also qualified for the main stage thanks to his polling performance in New Hampshire.)
So the field’s been winnowed. It’s very unlikely that anyone not on the main stage will outlast the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. In theory, this is good for the Republican establishment. They need one of their preferred candidates – Rubio, Christie, or Bush – to come out of the first two contests looking strong enough to be the guy they can rally around. I’m starting to think this will happen. I predict that Christie will drop out soon after New Hampshire. That’s the basket in which he’s put all of his eggs, and after Iowa makes him look bad and he doesn’t finish in the top three in New Hampshire, Christie will have to fold like the cheap suit that he is.
That would leave Rubio and Bush, and I think Rubio will come out looking much stronger. Bush will have the money to stay in the race but not a compelling rationale. He’s a Bush, I guess? I don’t know. He could stay in until the “SEC Primary” on March 1st and hope the southern states revive his chances (they won’t), but then we’d be asking a once-proud man to suffer another month of humiliations en route to a certain and devastating rejection. I won’t mind that, but will he?
As for the non-establishment candidates, I recently wrote this about Carson:
Who knew renowned brain surgeons could be useful idiots? Or does Dr. Ben Carson know exactly what he’s doing and is happy to ride the gravy train til it stops? Either way, looks like the grifters involved with Carson’s campaign have taken complete control and look for him to be toast after Iowa. At best he’ll be a dead man walking when the pious Iowa hayseeds who are Carson’s base don’t deliver him a top two finish. I guess that’s one less crazy guy that could become president.
Carson is finished. Iowa can sometimes surprise but it’s clear that the people who deliver those surprises – evangelicals – have moved hard into Cruz’s camp. Here’s where things can get tricky for Trump.
If Cruz wins Iowa, Trump may lose some of his winning appeal. Actually, he’s running strong in New Hampshire and South Carolina and if I had to bet I’d say Trump will win New Hampshire and maintain his national frontrunner status. But just for fun, my theory of a Trump demise goes something like this: Trump’s loss in Iowa is worse than expected; the loss gets under Trump’s notoriously thin skin; he makes such an ass of himself in the week leading up to New Hampshire that even the people that make up his base start to notice; he barely wins New Hampshire or even loses to a suddenly surging Cruz or Rubio; in the 11 days before South Carolina and Nevada vote Trump goes even more off the rails; and by the time March 1st rolls around, Trump’s candidacy has imploded as quickly as it arose.
To reiterate, I think Trump will be in this thing for the long haul. Last week, though, Ezra Klein wrote an interesting piece in which he explains why he still thinks Trump will lose and that if he does, it might look like this. The scenario sketched above fits Klein’s scheme, in which a candidate is winning until he isn’t, and then he loses. Think Howard Dean in 2004.
So, the prediction is that there will be a three-man race for the Republican nomination after Iowa and New Hampshire vote: Trump will lead nationally, Cruz will be a close second, and Rubio will be the establishment’s great hope.
It’ll be interesting to re-visit this in two months. There are two more debates before the Iowa caucuses and something could happen to make all this look bad before a single vote is cast! In the meantime, enjoy Trump’s thin skin: