Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Energy: Trump set to sign offshore drilling order Bush ethics lawyer: Trump should strip Flynn of military title Dems might begin again with Kamala Harris and California MORE faces a stark challenge as the clock ticks down to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
The business mogul’s stinging loss in the Iowa caucuses on Monday robbed him of his sense of momentum. While he continues to lead polls of Granite State Republicans by a large margin, as he has for months, doubts are deepening about whether he can translate that advantage into actual votes.
Meanwhile, Iowa winner Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzNet neutrality fight descends into trench warfare Secret Service: No guns at Trump NRA speech Cruz: Breaking up 9th Circuit Court ‘a possibility’ MORE (Texas) cannot be discounted. Even though New Hampshire is perceived as less fertile ground than Iowa for a candidate in Cruz’s ideological mold, he lies second in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in the state.
His win in the caucuses will boost him further, though the extent of his likely gain is impossible to predict.
Cruz’s communications director, Rick Tyler, told The Hill, “I don’t expect a win, but there is an opportunity” in New Hampshire.
Tyler added that the Texas senator hoped to “show or place” in the Feb. 9 primary.
Team Trump: Support ‘unwavering’
Trump remains the front-runner in New Hampshire, even though he will now have to share the spotlight.
On Tuesday evening, he was joined at a news conference in Milford, N.H., by former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who delivered a ringing endorsement.
Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks told The Hill that the billionaire’s support in New Hampshire was “unwavering.” She added, “We look forward to campaigning there all week before next week’s primary.”
A defeat in New Hampshire could spell disaster for Trump given that his current lead in the RCP average is 22.2 percentage points. All of those polls were conducted before he came up short in Iowa.
Trump’s campaign aides argue that predictions of his demise are greatly exaggerated. They note that he received more support in the Iowa caucuses than did 2012 winner Rick Santorum or any other Republican in the history of the caucuses, with the
exception of Cruz.
Still, the stakes could hardly be higher for him as the Feb. 9 primary looms.
“He needs to win New Hampshire,” said Neil Levesque, the director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. “He’s been leading by double-digits for 33 weeks now and has to show that he can sustain that on election day. Anything less than a victory will be trouble for him.”
Craig Stevens, a New Hampshire GOP operative and veteran of several presidential campaigns, agreed: “His reason for running is winning, and we still haven’t seen whether his campaign machine is capable of that.”
Even so, Stevens argued that “he’s still the favorite, especially when you have five or six candidates fighting for and splitting the same vote.”
But what if one candidate emerged as the clear winner of that fight?
Rubio will have the wind at his back heading into New Hampshire. That wind could ultimately lay waste to the campaigns of Bush, Rubio’s former mentor, as well as Kasich and Christie.
All three candidates need a strong showing in the Granite State if their bids are to be considered viable — and their chances of reaching that goal diminish as Rubio’s fortunes rise.
“You may very well see ... consolidation behind Rubio,” said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire. “It’s going to be hand-to-hand political combat here everyday going forward.”
The Rubio campaign is already working furiously to frame the contest as a three-man race between him, Trump and Cruz.
But the trio of governors who have staked their campaigns on New Hampshire will not go quietly.
Bush, Kasich and Christie have committed vast time and financial resources to the state and have essentially been squatting there, laying the groundwork for their campaigns for months.
“They’re all talented, but the problem is that there’s just too many of them,” said Levesque.
“It’s going to be tough for one of them to pull away,” said Duprey. “But if one of them climbs into second place it becomes a whole new ballgame.”
Cruz’s expectations game
Cruz has never been expected to win New Hampshire, where relative moderates such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) have emerged as past victors.
Cruz is a very different kind of candidate than Romney or McCain, his speeches replete with biblical references and tributes to those he terms “courageous conservatives.”
But the Texas senator seems an odds-on bet to avoid the poor New Hampshire results that sapped Mike Huckabee and Santorum, the conservatives who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
“Our expectations are to exceed expectations,” said Tyler, Cruz’s communications director.
For Cruz, the name of the game is to suffer no embarrassment before the primary process moves on to South Carolina, where Republicans vote Feb. 20, and into several other Southern states on Mar. 1.
In Iowa, “Cruz proved he has got an extraordinary organization,” said GOP strategist Ed Rollins. “He is very tough, he has a plan and he has executed his plan very well.”
In the nomination battle overall, Rollins added, “it is getting narrowed down to these three candidates. Rubio is the establishment candidate. Trump is Trump — he has his base, though I don’t think he will be able to get much beyond it. And Cruz is the conservative.”
New Hampshire, however, has a long history of confounding all expectations. And the final Republican debate before the primary, set for Manchester on Saturday, offers another opportunity for someone to spring a surprise.
“Usually we have a New Hampshire moment, and this is the week when it happens. Maybe it will happen at the debate, maybe somewhere on the campaign trail, but it’s the kind of thing that makes the race turn on a dime,” said Levesque.