MANCHESTER, NH -- Coming out of Iowa, a few narratives began to congeal: Hillary is going to struggle to put Bernie away. Trump isn't a mirage, but his support is overstated, and he's beatable. Cruz's ground game is the real deal. Rubio is a legitimate contender. Other GOP campaigns are on life support. So how will the revamped script read after tonight? On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders appears destined for a significant win, battering Hillary in a state that may be in the Vermonter's backyard, but that she famously won in 2008. Thus, the prohibitive Democratic frontrunner will emerge from her first two primary elections having tied and lost to a Socialist. The road ahead will get less arduous for her, but it's likely to be a much longer journey than she'd bargained for. In RepublicanWorld, things are murkier. The increasingly profane Donald Trump is the odds-on favorite to win comfortably. He's up by 17 points in the RCP average. The only question seems to be whether he'll underperform his polls again, not whether he'll prevail at all. Even a few days ago, this may have been less clear. I've spoken to three separate, plugged-in sources who've all told me the same thing: In the days following his surprisingly robust Iowa finish, Marco Rubio appeared to be on track to seriously challenge Trump for first place here in the Granite State. That's how trajectory looked, they say. But after a debate performance that was at best mixed, featuring a memorably painful exchange with Chris Christie, Rubio finds himself in a dogfight for second place. New polling has him sitting anywhere from second to fourth, the latter of which would be a disaster for his campaign. Why the focus on Rubio? Allahpundit explains:
I’m not overstating it when I say that the nomination may hinge on how Rubio finishes tonight. If he’s a strong second, he’ll be a strong favorite in betting markets to win it all; if he finishes behind Kasich and (especially) Bush, there’ll be mass panic within the GOP establishment about how to stop Trump and Cruz over the next six weeks. If Rubio can’t pull out a win in South Carolina or Nevada after this, he’s likely done, and whether he can win there depends in part on whether he can surprise everyone tonight.
May hinge. A silver medal for Rubio here keeps him on pace to make a strong play for the GOP crown, especially as rivals continue to drop out. He'll demonstrate that he can take a hard punch and get right back up. It'll be off to South Carolina, where Ted Cruz will be lying in wait with a fresh line of attack (which Rubio should be able to parry, assuming he's not once again caught like a deer in the headlights by an obviously-telegraphed hit). The field will thin out, and Rubio will take a major step closer to the three-man race he wants. Another bronze would be an under-performance, as the conventional wisdom would take root that Rubio's debate gaffe inflicted real damage, ramping up pressure to over-perform in at least one of the two remaining February nominating contests. Not good, but salvageable. But if the Florida Senator ends up in fourth place or worse, it's a catastrophe for his candidacy. This cycle may be too unpredictable to declare his campaign over after that type of outcome, but he'd be in deep, deep trouble. And because the likeliest beneficiary of Rubio's potential New Hampshire swoon is John Kasich -- who, let's face it, lacks a path to the nomination, even if he comes in second place -- a Marcoplosion might usher the race into a Trump vs. Cruz stage. (On that note, I recommend Liam Donovan's sharp piece on the GOP establishment's foolish and short-sighted dalliances with The Donald).
As for the other candidates, Ben Carson's tactical decisions continue to point toward an exit ramp sooner or later, especially in light of his indignance over the Cruz campaign's exploitive maneuver in the Hawkeye State. Cruz, by the way, is almost in a no-lose situation in New Hampshire, unless he really bombs. An unsurprising middling result doesn't hurt him much with South Carolina up next, but an unexpectedly strong showing (fueled by his ground operation) would give him another burst of energy and momentum. Carly Fiorina, who has campaigned hard, hasn't made many inroads since her sparkling debate showings early in the cycle. I'm not sure she survives an 'afterthought' finish in New Hampshire. And despite their big night on Saturday, the remaining trio of governors all need to make big statements here, which can't happen. Chris Christie may be in the most danger, having gone all-in on the Granite State with relatively little to show for it in the polls. If Jeb Bush finishes behind, say, Trump, Rubio, Kasich, and maybe Cruz, he'll again have poured enormous resources into a state in which he ended up petering out. Placing in the top three (not beyond the realm of possibility, according to some polls) would be a boost, however, and he certainly has the money and infrastructure to keep truckin' basically for as long as he wants. At least one governor's campaign will effectively or literally end tonight. Maybe two. And possibly even three, depending on how things shake out.
So if the eleventh hour analysis is correct, and Rubio's post-New Hampshire standing is a major cipher to unlocking the dynamics of the remainder of the race, what can we expect from him this evening? His team has begun downplaying the risky "3-2-1" strategy we wrote about late last month, with the candidate emphasizing slow but steady delegate accumulation. Is that a sign that they're pre-spinning what they now expect to be a third-place or worse result tonight? Or is it the same sort of sly expectations management that undeniably contributed to the "Marcomentum" media boomlet after Iowa? We'll soon find out. I'll leave you with a few sights and sounds from the campaign trail over the last few days, followed by yet another stark illustration of how certain longstanding political rules of thumb simply don't seem to apply to Donald Trump -- who is running far ahead among an electorate that is known for prizing retail politics and policy depth:
Rubio introduced in Nashua. pic.twitter.com/cv6v6zVjBQ— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) February 9, 2016
NH event counter: Kasich 165, Christie 133, Bush 94, Rubio 78, Cruz 59. (Trump 33) via @aabramson— Rick Klein (@rickklein) February 9, 2016
Parting thought (via AP): Who's the "real" Rubio? The guy who got stuck on repeat at the debate, and who allegedly doesn't react well to setbacks? Or the guy who recovered well in that same debate, seemed unfazed by mid-interview heckling on national television, and whose charisma is winning over voters one by one on the ground?