The GOP presidential campaign has now shifted away from the heartland evangelical wonderland of Iowa to "live free or die" state, New Hampshire, where the elbows are notoriously sharp and a whole bunch of Republican establishment candidates are hunkering down to stage their last stand. It remains unlikely that any of them will be able to dislodge Trump in the number one slot -- it's much more his kind of electorate than the pious social conservatives of Iowa. There are lots of angry white right-wingers and independents there who aren't as concerned about their religion as they are about their guns and the threat of Mexicans and Muslims "pouring over the border" to make them eat mole and follow Sharia law.
But after Iowa there a feeling of excitement in the air that the Trump balloon may have finally burst, and there's a possibility that the air could go completely out of it over the next couple of weeks. (Nate Silver mused yesterday that Trump may just end up being like Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul.) One suspects that all the other candidates are having fever dreams about making a big last-minute move as Rubio did in Iowa to either usurp The Donald or come in a close second and be touted as this cycle's Comeback Kid. Cruz and Rubio are, of course, the two best positioned to do this, with Rubio probably a little bit better positioned than Cruz simply because he isn't quite as dependent on evangelical voters, even though he turned himself into the second coming of Oral Roberts in the last couple of weeks to get himself a slice of that Iowa evangelical pie.
Yesterday morning, the campaigns wasted no time with niceties, as Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich were practically waiting on the tarmac for the Iowa Three to alight from their private planes to begin the battle, mano a mano. So far they seem to be sticking with the "Trump will implode eventually" strategy and are setting their sights on one another. As is his wont, Chris Christie was the first to deliver a roundhouse punch to the man who came in third in Iowa but was declared the winner, Marco Rubio:
“Let’s get him up here – let’s get the boy in the bubble up here. Let’s see if he’ll handle your questions and take that. I don’t think he will. Now it’s time for him to man up and step up and stop letting his handlers write all of his speeches. I’m fascinated to hear his answers, and I’m sure you are too.
"Maybe he’ll answer more than two or three questions at a town hall and do more than 40 minutes and deliver something that isn’t the same canned speech he gives every time. This isn’t the student-council election everybody. This is the election for the president of the United States.
"Let’s get the boy in his bubble out of his bubble, and let’s see him play for the next week in New Hampshire. Let’s see if he’s ready to play because I’m ready to play.”
(And we thought Trump was the only candidate with a talent for pro-wrestling trash talk. Trump, of course, actually participates in it as a "character" named "Donald Trump".)
It's pretty clear what Christie's saying there: Rubio's a punk. Rubio's campaign manager responded by calling Christie a liberal Obama lover who's full of "hot air," which undoubtedly made him feel very sad.
Jeb Bush meanwhile is facing a different problem: too much campaign spending on his behalf. It sounds weird, but according to this Washington Post story, Bush's Super PAC is inundating people with expensive campaign swag to the point where it's making them recoil from the candidate.This has happened before. In California, eBay magnate and GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman saturated the state with advertisements for many months, and it made people hate her. There is such a thing as too much exposure. (It's worth noting that Whitman had an unusual business arrangement with strategist Mike Murphy -- the same Mike Murphy who runs Bush's Right to Rise Super PAC.)
Meanwhile, after his Super PAC ran a very unpopular negative ad against Marco Rubio and he asked them to take it down, Governor John Kasich (who is seen as a possible New Hampshire latecomer) seems to have decided that he's going to run as the positive, optimistic guy. It makes sense since there might be a few people in New Hampshire who aren't convinced that their country is the dark and hopeless dystopian hell-scape the other candidates insist America has become.
And then there's Rubio, who is telling everyone who will listen that he's the only one who can "unite both the Republican Party and the conservative movement after what has been a divisive campaign." He seems to think if he says it enough it will be true. And a lot of Republicans in D.C. are probably hoping he's right.
Unfortunately, he and Cruz might share the same problem in the general election. This Kasich voter gets right to the point:
Rubio and Cruz "really are too conservative, and I don't really see them as compromisers," said Judy Kohn, a 76-year-old retired librarian from Georges, New Hampshire.
Nobody is surprised that someone might think Ted Cruz is too conservative. But that nice young man Rubio? Well yes, as it happens, he's just as right wing as Cruz. Sure, he joined the Gang of 8 to try to forge some compromise on immigration but that's the only compromise he's ever endorsed. It's too bad for him that happens to be a litmus test issue on the right (and one which I'm not sure they can forgive).
”I like Marco but he has now turned hard right. Marco has no exception for rape and incest. I think it’s going to be very hard to grow the party among women if you’re gonna tell young women, ‘If you get raped, you’re gotta carry the child of the rapist.’”
According to recent polling that extreme position is only held by 17 percent of the public.
This quote is from a speech Rubio gave a while back at the Reagan Library, talking about Medicare and Social Security:
"These programs actually weakened us as a people. You see, almost forever, it was institutions in society that assumed the role of taking care of one another...All of a sudden, for an increasing number of people in our nation, it was no longer necessary to worry about saving for security because that was the government’s job."
It's rare to hear even a far right wing zealot or hardcore libertarian suggest that Social Security and Medicare have "weakened us as a people." The farthest they will usually go is to suggest that the program should be privatized. That's a scathing indictment of our national character.
Here's a quote from the most recent presidential debate talking about the threat of ISIS:
"When I am president of the United States, if there is some place in this country where radical jihadists are planning to attack the United States, we will go after them wherever they are, and if we capture them alive, they are going to Guantanamo."
Essentially, he's saying that terrorist suspects caught within the United States will not have trials, they will be sent to Guantanamo. But that's not how we do things in this country. Any terrorist suspects we've caught here up until now have been subject to the American legal system. We've had numerous court cases on the subject. He's openly admitting he plans to flout the rule of law.
That was just the tip of the iceberg of Rubio's frightening foreign policy and national security declarations during the debates. He is, by far, the most bellicose of the lot, and that's saying something. He states that President Obama has not kept the country safe and therefore he is prepared to let the intelligence services do "whatever it takes," and promising to make terrorist suspects talk (and I think we know what that means). Even Dick Cheney is more restrained.
The Republicans seem to have talked themselves into believing their own hype that the country is in dire straits, the terrorists are coming in droves to kill us and everyone in the nation is angry and frightened to death about... well, everything. There's a certain political utility in making this case in a presidential primary but at some point reality is going to intrude. No, everything isn't perfect. America is still emerging from a very difficult economic crisis and there is a terrorist threat abroad. People are frustrated by student debt and police violence and any number of other problems. But the Mad Max version of the United States these Republicans are talking about doesn't really ring true for more than a limited faction who think the world they knew is disappearing and they will not be able to adjust to the new one.
If all the cards fall the right way and Cruz is unable to win anywhere where there isn't a large evangelical population and Trump decides he wants to go back to playing golf and none of the rest of the establishment pack can climb out of the pile, maybe Rubio will be able to bridge the gap between the conservative movement and the establishment as he's now promising on a loop. And that's making the huge assumption that the anti-immigration fetishists will hold their noses and vote for him despite his one apostasy. But that still doesn't solve their problem. Rubio is so far to the right and the party is so hostile to racial and ethnic minorities that they cannot win a national election. He's got a Hispanic last name and a beautiful young family, but his record shows he's just another right wing extremist.