The Republican establishment is grappling with an uncomfortable reality: No single candidate is about to be crowned as its standard-bearer after New Hampshire’s primary.
And that means Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWHCA dinner could be Trump's chance to one-up the media. He should take it. Trump promises border wall still coming at NRA summit Perez: Trump and Republican in Georgia runoff are '2 peas in a pod' MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzTrump in campaign form at NRA convention Trump’s hands are tied on 9th Circuit Schumer: Trump's handling of North Korea 'all wrong' MORE could be sprinting toward the presidential nomination before a third rival gets out of the starting blocks.
South Carolina hosts the next GOP contest, on Feb. 20, but it’s far from certain that any third candidate can compete for a win in that state’s primary.
Polling in South Carolina has been relatively sparse, but so far surveys show the billionaire businessman with a large lead and the Texas senator tucked comfortably into second place. The two are the big favorites in the Palmetto State, given their wins in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.
From the establishment’s perspective, Trump’s landslide win on Tuesday night was just about the worst possible outcome.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioOvernight Defense: Commander calls North Korea crisis 'worst' he's seen | Trump signs VA order | Dems push Trump to fill national security posts What’s with Trump’s spelling mistakes? Boeing must be stopped from doing business with Iran MORE (R-Fla.), who had seemed poised to become the center-right’s champion after a strong third-place finish in Iowa’s caucuses, sank to fifth in New Hampshire after a disastrous debate performance over the weekend.
Heading up the establishment lane in New Hampshire was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But Kasich was a very distant second to Trump, and GOP insiders believe he has neither the organization nor the ideological appeal to prevail in South Carolina or in the several Deep South states that will vote on March 1.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush finished fourth in the Granite State — a showing strong enough to guarantee he will be able to stay in the race for a while but not so strong as to deliver a game-changing shot of momentum.
“It certainly didn’t simplify the picture any,” Republican strategist Charlie Black said dryly. Black has worked at a senior level on several GOP presidential campaigns in the past, including that of 2008 nominee John McCainJohn McCainEx-Bush aide Nicolle Wallace to host MSNBC show Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Top commander: Don't bet on China reining in North Korea MORE. He is unaffiliated this year.
It all adds up to an unappealing vista for establishment Republicans. Further deepening the gloom, South Carolina has a strong record of backing the eventual winner of the GOP nomination. The Palmetto State has backed the winning bid in every Republican contest from 1980 to 2008. In 2012, Newt Gingrich won the primary but was defeated by Mitt Romney in the battle to reach the general election.
“I think it’s a game-changer, I really do,” said David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University who is also a GOP consultant in the state. “Let’s just say Cruz wins: I think that’s a big thing. He will have won a Southern state, a base-state for Republicans that is not going blue. That could really help him.”
But Woodard also offered a note of caution regarding attempts to predict the outcome in his home state.
“I think I can make a good case for any one of about five people winning the primary,” he said with a laugh.
The sheer fluidity of the field is already leading to some fierce jockeying for position. Several candidates are making the argument that they are the best placed to stop Trump from rolling onward toward the nomination.
Cruz, whose old “bromance” with Trump is a thing of the past, insisted that “the only person in this field who can beat Donald Trump is me.” The Texan’s comments, which were made on radio’s “Mike Gallagher Show” on Wednesday, were first reported by BuzzFeed.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant, meanwhile, argued to CNN that Bush’s continued presence in the race makes it more likely that Trump will win.
The battle between Rubio and Bush is also likely to get muddier in general.
Soon after the New Hampshire results became clear, the Bush campaign sent an email to reporters recalling Rubio’s earlier pledge to run a “3-2-1” strategy that would see him coming third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and emerging as the victor in South Carolina.
On Wednesday, another Bush email declared South Carolina to be “Jeb country.”
Even though the Palmetto State delivered vital primary victories for George W. Bush in 2000 and for George H.W. Bush in 1988, many GOP insiders think the former Florida governor will have difficulty following in their footsteps.
“What we could see in South Carolina is Bush and Rubio throwing mud at each other while Trump and Cruz are fighting for first place,” lamented Bonjean.
Some establishment voices are staving off panic for the moment.
Black, the Republican strategist, noted that the all-important delegates to the national convention are awarded on a proportional basis by all the states that vote up until March 15. On that date, Florida and Ohio are among the biggest states voting. They are huge prizes, because both award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
Black asserted that mainstream Republicans would be fine so long as they had coalesced behind one candidate by then. “Whoever can win big on that day is the person who will really take command of the race,” he predicted.
Still, virtually all recent major-party nominees have won at least one early-voting state. The hour may already be getting late to stop the march of Trump and Cruz — especially while the identity of the alternative remains unclear.
The establishment “thought it was Rubio — until last night,” Woodard said Wednesday, referring to the New Hampshire result.
“I just don’t know whether he can really come back to beat all these guys [in South Carolina]. If he fails this time, I don’t know if the establishment can come up with anyone.”