Who would benefit most from Trump's slip? The conventional answer is Ted Cruz, but I think that's wrong. Cruz may well overcome Trump in South Carolina, as he did in Iowa, but his room to grow isn't nearly as great as Marco Rubio's. Cruz has a strong claim to the conservative base of the party, but once South Carolina is behind us, he's got to appeal to more mainstream voters.
Trump's edge with voters is based on his style, celebrity and starkly nativist and protectionist positions. Cruz can compete with Trump on some issues -- notably immigration, where he, too, promises to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. But he'll never win over those attracted by Trump's braggadocio and downright crudeness. He's too cerebral. And he's unlikely to out-protectionist Trump either. Does anyone really imagine Cruz threatening to slap on tariffs and launch trade wars with our biggest trading partners? If Cruz comes in either first or second, he stays in and has to fight a two-way battle, trying to both woo Trump's defectors and squash Rubio.
Assuming Marco Rubio comes in a strong third, he's got a leg up on Cruz. He'll take the lion's share of Bush's and Kasich's supporters going forward, and he can then challenge Cruz for the role of alternative to Trump. The two men will likely continue to bicker over immigration. That's a fool's errand. Voters get lost in the wonkish debate over "poison pill" amendments and Senate bills. On the immigration front, Cruz would be better off challenging Trump.
Cruz has successfully exposed Trump on the latter's pro-abortion history, his support for seizing private property under eminent domain for private gain, and his long-standing support for Democrat candidates, including Hillary Clinton. It's time Cruz does the same on Trump's immigration hypocrisy. Trump, after all, has a well-documented history of defying federal law and employing illegal immigrants. He's been sued for hiring some 200 illegal Polish workers in his Trump Tower project, who allegedly were threatened with deportation if they didn't work 12-hour days, seven days a week to meet Trump's schedule. And Trump's current project at the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., according to interviews by The Washington Post, employs many illegal immigrants.
After Saturday, the likeliest scenario is that three men are left standing: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. If Rubio doesn't emerge a strong third and is heaped in with Bush and Kasich, he will probably end up struggling to stay in the race, too. The also-rans can limp along a bit longer if they have money in the bank, as Bush does. But they don't advance their own chances, and they make it harder for the party to win in November.
Until a truly viable alternative to Trump emerges, the Republican Party can write off regaining the White House on Election Day; and it jeopardizes its chances of holding the Senate as well. Saturday's results could winnow the field. But if this election stays a four- or five-man race any longer, we'll see a repeat of 2012. Democrats will unite around either Clinton or Sanders when the primaries are over. But Republicans could well see themselves so fractured and embittered from the primaries and the debates that they cannot recover.