Rubio vs Cruz? The Real GOP Battle Shaping Up In New Hampshire
Policy + Politics

Rubio vs Cruz? The Real GOP Battle Shaping Up In New Hampshire

REUTERS/Scott Morgan

In yet another surprise finish, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio came close to beating billionaire Donald Trump for second place in the Iowa Republican caucuses. His strong third-place showing changed the presidential sweepstakes by signaling that a more establishment Republican could defeat Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for the nomination.

Cruz, the darling of Evangelical Christians and Tea Party conservatives who ran a first-rate ground game, finished first with 28 percent of the GOP vote, compared to 24 percent for the presumed frontrunner Trump and 23 percent for Rubio.

Related: Donald Trump Rolls Snake Eyes in Iowa

With the campaign now shifting to New Hampshire next Tuesday, Rubio will clearly hold an advantage over other establishment candidates who are counting on a strong performance in New England, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

"This is the moment they said would never happen,” a highly pumped Rubio said at his “victory” celebration late Monday night. “For months, they told us we had no chance. They told me that I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line. But tonight here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a very clear message — after seven years of Barack Obama, we are not waiting any longer to take our country back.”

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who campaigned for Rubio in Iowa, said “There is a lot of momentum going into New Hampshire” and beyond after Rubio’s extraordinarily strong finish in Iowa. He said that is especially true after Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, an African-American, signaled yesterday that he would endorse Rubio. 

Gardner told MSNBC that undecided voters will begin breaking in Rubio’s direction in the coming weeks when they hear his “message of optimism, that message of excitement, that message that we can do more as a country than the place we’re stuck in right now.”

University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato and his colleagues wrote today that Rubio’s strong third-place showing “will help him make the argument to donors and insiders that he is the best bet to take on Cruz and Trump.”  Moreover, Scott’s endorsement of Rubio may help to offset some of Cruz’s strength in South Carolina heading into that state’s primary.

Related: How Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Both Won the Iowa Caucus

Despite the fact that Trump appears to be a prohibitive favorite to win New Hampshire, a strong showing there by Rubio could bring a lot of clarity to the currently muddled fight for the GOP’s establishment lane.

If GOP candidates in New Hampshire can be divided into two tiers, Rubio currently sits in the lower half of the top tier. With an average 9.5 percent of the vote in recent polls, according to Real Clear Politics, he is nearly 24 points behind Trump, who leads the field with 33.2 percent.

Source: Real Clear Politics

Rubio is nominally in fifth place in the RCP average. However, once you get below Trump, the next four candidates are all clustered within two percentage points of each other. Cruz and Kasich are tied for second, with 11.5 percent of the vote, Bush has 10.3 percent, and Rubio 9.5 percent.

It is not out of the question that riding a strong performance in Iowa, Rubio could come into New Hampshire and leapfrog some, or even all of the candidates standing between him and Trump. Among the top tier candidates in the Granite state, Rubio has the highest favorability rating and the lowest unfavorable rating.

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Two of the would-be establishment candidates -- Kasich and Christie -- have invested huge amounts of time courting New Hampshire voters. (Christie is polling at 6.5 percent.) A strong second place showing by Rubio in New Hampshire would make it very difficult for either of them to remain in the race, as they will be staring down the barrel of a primary in South Carolina where each of them is currently polling at around 2 percent.

Christie sought to downplay the significance of the Iowa caucuses during an appearance in New Hampshire, insisting that “nothing really changed yesterday and that “now the fun starts.”

However, in a scenario where Rubio effectively clears Christie and  Kasich  from the field, the pressure would then be on Jeb Bush to either demonstrate some strength, which he has yet to do, or step aside and let his fellow Floridian consolidate the establishment wing of the Party and concentrate on defeating Cruz and Trump.