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Eye On Candidates
February 9, 2016

Bush, Kasich Vying for 2nd Place (and Top Governor) in New Hampshire

It should go without saying that all nine candidates still in contention for the Republican presidential nomination would love to come in first place in today’s New Hampshire primary, but it seems likely that businessman Donald Trump has that position locked down – recent polling shows him with a significant lead over his rivals, and his lead in the average of polls is 17 points.

So the real contest would seem to be for second place, although there is also a great deal of attention being paid to which of three current or former governors still in the race – Florida’s Jeb Bush, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and Ohio’s John Kasich – will come out on top of the group. (Jim Gilmore, Virginia’s former governor, is also in the race, but he has not registered any support in polls and few expect him to be competitive.) And it’s entirely possible that the winner among the governors will also be the overall second-place finisher.

Here is how Politico described the race for second place:

Republicans scramble for second in New Hampshire

The drama, then, is in the frenetic scramble for second place. In the latest UMass/7News tracking poll released Monday morning, and Monmouth University's latest poll out Sunday, John Kasich, Rubio, Jeb Bush and Cruz are all clustered between 12 and 14 percent. (Trump has consistently hovered around 30 percent in high-quality polls.) Christie, meanwhile, languished around 5 percent.

Those results do little to capture the impact of Saturday night, meaning the full impact of Christie’s romp over Rubio won’t be known until voters cast their ballots Tuesday. (An internal poll released by a pro-Kasich super PAC on Sunday showed Rubio falling to fourth.)

The fight right now is hottest among Rubio, Bush, Christie and Kasich, as they’re all competing for the same pool of support. And for them, Tuesday’s showing is less about delegates and more about scoring a result that bolsters their case that they should be the establishment champion.

The Hill weighs in with a similar piece regarding the fight for second place and makes the following observations:

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are fighting for survival. All three are desperate for a strong showing in the state, landing either solidly in second place or at least ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the third-place finisher in Iowa.

Many believe Bush has the ground game to survive. He’s easily winning the sign wars in the state, his red “Jeb!” signs jutting out of the snowy landscape.

Kasich has the buzz on the ground. He has the backing of more newspaper editorial boards in the state than anyone, and he is hustling to win independent voters by embracing centrist positions and avoiding attacks on his rivals.

Christie may have helped Bush, Kasich and Trump with his forceful takedown of Rubio during Saturday’s debate…. Yet the attacks do not appear to have helped Christie, who was behind Trump, Rubio, Kasich, Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in tracking polls released on Monday.

One interesting article this morning suggests that Bush may be the one rising at just the right time, perhaps enough to win the “governor primary,” as some have dubbed the contest between Bush, Christie and Kasich, and perhaps even finish in second place. From The Washington Post:

Something has clicked for Bush in New Hampshire in the past few days. What has transpired by no means guarantees him a top-tier finish in Tuesday’s Republican primary here, but the crowds turning out to see him are bigger, his delivery on the stump is crisper and some of his key rivals have stumbled. At the least, the developments have mostly silenced talk of a hasty exit and skittish donors….

Bush has been particularly helped by circumstances beyond his control in recent days. First, Trump, his leading nemesis, placed second in Iowa, slowing the business magnate’s march. Bush placed sixth in Iowa, but he never committed to the caucuses as avidly as Trump did. Most also agree that Bush bested Trump in a Saturday debate tussle over eminent domain.

Then there’s Rubio, Bush’s former mentee, who was humiliated in the debate when rival Chris Christie called him out for repeating talking points — and Rubio repeated them again anyway.

Bush and his advisers say Rubio’s struggles vividly proved what they have long asserted: The senator’s carefully crafted image masks his inexperience to serve as president. For months, advisers and donors have argued that Trump had “blocked out the sun” with wall-to-wall coverage of his unconventional campaign, leaving Rubio to enjoy what several aides and donors describe as fawning media coverage.

It may be too little too late, but it does appear that Bush is well positioned for a top-three finish, which ought to give him what he needs to continue on to South Carolina.

Kasich also has a lot riding on a strong finish in New Hampshire, and like Bush he seems poised to do well, with help from independent voters, as Bloomberg Politics reports:

Nearly half the voters in New Hampshire's presidential primaries Tuesday aren't registered in either political party, and that could be good news for Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Kasich has built his appeal in New Hampshire around a Midwest-sensible persona and tight-fisted fiscal record that many independents love. These undeclared voters are why some predict Kasich could pull off a strong finish here even without the star-power of Donald Trump or the youthful appeal of Marco Rubio….

Forty-four percent of voters in the nation's first primary state are independents, up from 40 percent in 2008, according to the secretary of state. They're allowed to vote in either party's primary on Election Day, which could give them significant clout if they weighed in on a Republican contest where at least four candidates are clustered behind Trump for second place.

Key to the second-place race, of course, is how Florida Sen. Marco Rubio performs in the primary, as Roll Call explains this morning:

In a contest Donald Trump is favored to win – nearly every poll shows him with a comfortable advantage — the real drama will center on the first-term Florida senator. He began the Granite State primary with momentum after his strong third-place finish in Iowa, a showing that yielded a flurry of key endorsements and made him the favorite of center-right, establishment-oriented donors and voters.

But a disappointing performance during Saturday night’s debate, in which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mocked him for repeating the same criticism of President Obama four different times, has at least temporarily halted his coronation. And an establishment that a week ago assumed it would be rallying behind Rubio before next week’s South Carolina primary might find itself fractured yet again if Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are able to steal a second-place finish….

The most direct consequence of the debate, [said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain in 2008], might be that [a] second-place showing — if he barely tops Bush, Kasich, or Christie — might not be enough to nudge either of them out the race. Many Republicans had once believed that New Hampshire would winnow the field of candidates, giving whichever establishment candidate emerged an advantage in later contests when center-right GOP voters had only one option from which to choose.

“A second-place finish doesn’t ex-filtrate him from the consequences of the debate,” Schmidt said. “Because the candidates will rightly say people saw the real Marco Rubio, just not in time, and the more they see him the more he’s a depreciating asset in the market.”

And while Cruz doesn’t need a second-place finish to continue, The Hill explains he is still in contention for the runner-up position:

Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, doesn’t have to have a strong showing in New Hampshire. He’ll be a favorite in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary no matter what.

But he stands to benefit from being the only pure socially conservative candidate — besides retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign is fading —  still standing.

His team also has been drilling down on the libertarian-minded voters who once backed Rand Paul in the race….

If the mainstream conservatives continue to split the vote, Cruz could pull into a surprising second-place finish, which would be a deathblow for several of his rivals.

Christie is something of an afterthought in most of the analysis pieces in the last two days – he trails both Bush and Kasich in the polls and seems likely to finish in sixth place this evening. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Carson also trail badly, and if the average of polls is on target, they will finish in seventh and eighth places, respectively.

Multiple candidates are likely to claim some measure of victory this evening, and likely with some degree of accuracy. The most important winner, however, may be either Bush or Kasich, depending on which of them wins the “governor primary” and especially if he can finish second overall to Trump or even a close third behind Rubio.