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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Five things Iowa and New Hampshire taught us about the presidential race

New Hampshire resurrected Bush, but big hurdles remain

Adam Smith

New Hampshire resurrected Bush, but big hurdles remain

10

February

TAMPA -- Just stepped off the plane in New Hampshire after more than two weeks of watching the presidential candidates and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Contrary to expectations a few weeks ago, the topsy turvy Republican primary contest is not much clearer after New Hampshire than it was before the voting starting. We've said goodbye to a few candidates but we still have a jumble of contenders vying to be the mainstream alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, including both Floridians, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. 

Uncertainty continues, and neither primary appears to be winding down. Still, after two weeks on the snowy roads and overheated VFW halls and community rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire, here's where things stand.

1. Donald Trump is rolling toward the nomination. No, it's not a sure thing, but if Trump were a conventional candidate, the pundit class would be looking at current public polling and his performance in Iowa and especially New Hampshire and declaring him the overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination.

The exit polls in New Hampshire, where he beat second place finisher John Kasich two-to-one, show the extraordinary breadth of his appeal. Trump handily won moderates, conservatives, Republicans, and independents.  He won college educated voters and non-college educated. He won Evangelical voters, and he won upper, middle and lower income Granite staters. The candidate generating so much criticism for his hard edged rhetoric on immigrants, even won voters who support legal amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

The path ahead also favors Trump. As much as the GOP establishment hoped and expected New Hampshire would elevate one mainstream conservative to be the main bulwark against outsiders Trump and Ted Cruz, the establishment wing of the party is as splintered and divided as ever. Not only do Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush leave New Hampshire stronger than they entered that contest, but establishment front runner Marco Rubio leaves considerably weaker. 

As the race heads south, including South Carolina's Feb. 20 primary and the so-called Super Tuesday "SEC primary" on March 1 that includes several southern states, Trump and Cruz both look like the strongest candidates based on early polling. But most of those early state elections will divvy out delegates proportionally as the field, meaning no candidate is likely to build up a big lead in delegates and the underdog establishment candidates may have less incentive to drop out so long as they have money.

Then comes March 15, when Florida and Ohio hold winner-take-all primaries, awarding 99 and 66 delegates respectively. Whether home-state candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are still standing may not even matter much. The average of recent Republican polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. com shows Trump blowing away the field, with 40 percent support, compared to 19 percent for Cruz, 14 percent for Rubio, and 9 percent for Bush.


2. Don't overestimate Bush's resurgence. Florida's former governor is no longer the walking dead candidate. It matters a lot that he beat Rubio in New Hampshire, and that the establishment candidate who topped Bush was Kasich, who has a difficult landscape ahead with little money or infrastructure in South Carolina. He ground out a successful New Hampshire outcome through the substance and heart he showed in town hall meeting after town hall meeting and improved debate performances.

But talking to countless voters in New Hampshire and Iowa over the past two weeks, it was clear the antipathy toward Bush is vast. Even voters who profess to like him, see him as a weak general election candidate. Never before has a candidate spent so much money - $80-million in TV alone - and still perform so poorly. Bush has the highest unfavorability ratings among Republicans than any of his rivals.

3. Democrats have a looming mess on their hands. As much as Democrats have been relishing the turmoil in the Republican primary, New Hampshire showed their problems may be just as deep. Hillary Clinton, who won New Hampshire 's primary eight years ago, who has been campaigning there for more than two decades and who lead the race by 40 percentage points a year ago, was crushed by a democratic Socialist. No amount spin or campaign shake-ups can counter the evidence that she is a deeply flawed candidate at a time when voters of all stripes are fed up with the political establishment. 

Even the historic nature of her candidacy seems to have little resonance. Exit polls showed Bernie Sanders actually beat her among women, 55 to 44 percent.

The terrain become much tougher for Sanders, as the race moves to states like south Carolina and in a month to Florida, which are far less liberal and far less white than Iowa and New Hampshire. But Sanders has plenty of resources to plow ahead, relying mostly on small, online donations, while Clinton has to replenish her campaign accounts with time-consuming fundraising receptions. If the Vermont Senator starts gaining support with African-American voters (57 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate is non-white), Clinton will be in real trouble.

She already has a potential campaign-crushing, FBI investigation into her emails hanging over her. Now she faces the likelihood of a long slog of a primary race against Sanders. The longer her campaign looks shaky, the louder will be the please for Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren to step up.

4. Rubio has a glass jaw. Rubio's odd, robotic debate performance may well prove to be the downfall f his campaign. A central argument of his campaign - that he's the strongest candidate Republicans could nominate - is now in doubt. If he looks like a shallow and nervous rookie on the Republican debate stage, imagine what Hillary Clinton could do to him when he keeps repeating memorized sound bites?

Rubio, after initially sounding like Baghdad Bob and insisting his debate performance was fabulous, took responsibility for it Tuesday night. The anecdotal evidence on the ground in New Hampshire suggested that debate was devastating to him.

"After the debate, there was a big difference. It was like the earth shifted," said Eric Zichella said, a lobbyist in Miami who spent much of the past week in New Hampshire knocking on doors and phoning undecided voters.

For most of the year, the Rubio campaign has viewed the Bush as a virtually irrelevant player in the race for the nomination. Rubio still enjoys more goodwill among party activists and many voters than Bush, but Rubio's former mentor again looks like a giant threat to his viability. What's left of their friendship will be put under still greater threats over the rest of this month. 

Among the talking points the campaign distributed to Bush supporters Tuesday night: "Senator Rubio has lost momentum and has been exposed as completely unprepared to be president.  Rubio has demonstrated no respect for the nomination process and expects this to be a coronation."

5. Ted Cruz is on a roll. For all the attention on the "establishment candidates" - Bush, Kasich, and Rubio" - the race may really be coming down to Trump and Cruz. Cruz has spent less than $14-million on TV so far to win the Iowa caucuses and place a stronger-than-expected third place in New Hampshire. Bush and his super PAC have spent nearly $80-million to achieve a sixth place and fourth place finish. Rubio and his allies have spent nearly $50-million to finish third and fifth.

Cruz has plenty of money, a strong voter targeting and mobilization program, and has been the leading candidate among Evangelical voters. The next few weeks are loaded with states where Evangelical votes are a major part of the electorate, and Cruz is well positioned.

[Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 3:53pm]

    

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