Do-or-die in New Hampshire for struggling candidates

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Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie are fighting for survival in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. And the chances are only one of the three will make it out of the Granite State as a viable candidate.
 
New Hampshire “is honestly the end of the line for two of those three guys, in all likelihood,” said GOP consultant Phil Musser.
 
 
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But the trio faces an existential threat in Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio apologized to Trump for 'small hands' crack Sunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on Fla. Senate candidate bashes Rubio MORE, who finished a strong third in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, only about one point behind Trump, and who runs second to the business mogul in most New Hampshire polls. 
 
If Rubio can consolidate establishment support, it’s likely game over for all three.
 
“The challenge for all three of those governors is to prove that the party should not coalesce behind Rubio; that they should continue shopping,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster.
 
Making that case would be much harder, Anderson added, if none of the three was “able to beat Trump, Cruz or Rubio in New Hampshire.”
 
Experts vary slightly in their assessments of what Bush, Kasich and Christie have to do to have a plausible rationale for continuing their campaign. 
 
GOP consultant Ron Bonjean said they have to “get into the top three or four”; Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, asserted that someone needed to get ahead of Rubio, “and right now that means at least a second-place finish”; and Anderson asserted that “by placing in the top three, there is a path to viability.”
 
Right now, it is Kasich, the governor of Ohio, who seems best-positioned among the trio. He has 12 percent support in the RealClearPolitics polling average in New Hampshire, compared to 9.1 percent for Bush, the former governor of Florida; and 4.9 percent for Christie, the governor of New Jersey.
 
Those are small differences, though. Public opinion can be mercurial in the final days leading up to a primary, and the polls can simply be wrong. In Iowa, almost all polls predicted a Trump victory. 
 
While New Hampshire does not have Iowa’s idiosyncratic caucus system, it does have a long history, in both parties, of delivering shock results. Independent voters can decide on primary day which party’s race to cast a ballot in, adding a further twist of unpredictability.
 
For the moment, the expectation is that a large turnout of independent voters in the GOP primary would help Kasich. But his perceived appeal to those voters may be the very thing that limits his potential in primaries beyond New Hampshire.
 
“It’s hard,” said Scala. “The coalition he is trying to put down here is moderate Republicans and independents. That’s not a coalition that brings a lot of success in most Republican primaries.”
 
After New Hampshire, the primary process turns to South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Feb. 20; Nevada, where GOP caucuses are held on Feb. 23; and to more than 10 states, including several in the Deep South, on Super Tuesday on Mar. 1.
 
Kasich, Bush and Christie are focused only on the Granite State for now. With the polls so tight and the electorate apparently volatile, the Saturday evening debate in Manchester on will be of crucial importance. Most insiders expect the governors to hit Rubio harder than they hit each other.
 
“This debate is definitely a make-or-break moment for any of these three candidates, and everyone will have their fire trained on Rubio,” said Bonjean. “Everybody sees him as a threat. They see him as a threat because they see him becoming the consensus establishment candidate.”
 
When it comes to primary day itself, even a respectable showing by one of the establishment candidates may not keep them alive unless they can somehow destabilize Rubio.
 
“Let’s say Rubio finishes a strong second and Jeb Bush finishes fourth or fifth,” mused Scala. Bush “might decide to fight on, but I can imagine party elites coming to him at that point and saying, ‘Look, you’ve had your chance, you need to bow out. Rubio is the only one with a shot to win, and we can’t have Trump or Cruz.’ ”
 
Bush has not been reticent about attacking the candidate who once regarded him as a mentor. Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, Bush asserted that Rubio had accomplished “nothing” in the Senate.
 
Christie has been even more fiery, deriding the Florida senator as “the boy in the bubble” for a supposed reluctance to engage in unscripted interactions with voters or reporters.
 
The intense battle for establishment-friendly voters could ultimately have a beneficial effect for Trump. After his disappointment in Iowa, New Hampshire is a must-win state for him, and his chances of victory will improve if Rubio fades in the closing days.
 
Cruz has the benefit of low expectations in a state where the GOP electorate is less conservative than in Iowa. Most people think Cruz needs only to avoid disaster and move on to the friendlier terrain of South Carolina and Super Tuesday.
 
“Cruz is signaling that he is competing in New Hampshire but that he is looking down the line,” said Musser. “Cruz could be anywhere from second to fourth — but not much below that — and not see any real dent in his momentum.”
 
The three governors can only wish they had similar leeway.
 
For them, Anderson said, “if you can’t thrive in New Hampshire, you certainly won’t move on to South Carolina and do better there.”