Analysis: Despite strenuous efforts to overtake Donald Trump, none of his mainstream GOP opponents stood out from the pack in Tuesday’s primary. Now, they are left to muddle forward into the next contests, South Carolina and Nevada.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican leaders, who had hoped to bring a swift and orderly resolution to the party’s presidential primaries, have all but abandoned hope that the nomination will be decided without a long and costly fight stretching well into the spring.
Despite strenuous efforts to overtake Donald Trump, none of his mainstream Republican opponents stood out from the pack in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Now, they are left to muddle forward with no particular momentum into the next contests in South Carolina and Nevada.
If any strong alternative to Trump is to emerge, senior Republicans say, it will most likely come only after a monthslong nomination fight, spanning dozens of states and costing many millions of dollars. At this stage, his most formidable rival appears to be Ted Cruz, the hard-right Texas senator who won last week’s Iowa caucuses and who is even less acceptable to traditional party leaders than Trump.
Former Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, who led the Republicans’ House campaign committee from 2003 to 2006, said there would ultimately be room in the Republican race for just one candidate besides Trump and Cruz. The New Hampshire outcome, he said, will most likely leave the traditional Republican candidates fighting among themselves, as Trump and Cruz keep collecting delegates.
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“For the establishment, it’s almost like a hockey fight,” Reynolds said. “And the gloves are off and the refs can’t get in the middle of it.”
For a brief moment after the Iowa caucuses, Republicans believed that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the third-place finisher there, might catch up with Trump and perhaps even overtake him in New Hampshire. But after Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey embarrassed him in a debate Saturday, Rubio’s support appeared to deflate. He was on track Tuesday to finish with a cluster of runners-up, in a group that included Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, according to exit polls.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio finished second in New Hampshire, where he concentrated virtually all his energy and campaign spending in the race and offered himself explicitly as a softer-edged Republican who could work with Democrats in Washington, D.C.
But Kasich was poised to take less than a fifth of the Republican primary vote, falling short of a powerful finish that might send waves through the national nomination fight.
Michael Leavitt, a former governor of Utah and a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, said he believed the window for any Republican candidate to clinch the nomination before the party’s convention in Cleveland this summer was rapidly closing.
Leavitt, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race, said he had reviewed the delegate-allocation rules for every state and concluded that Trump would have to capture about 45 percent of the popular vote to win a majority of delegates for the convention. Trump has not approached that threshold in the polls so far, and Leavitt said no other candidate was likely to do so as long as so many of them remained in the race.
“It will be difficult for him to be a breakaway front-runner,” Leavitt said of Trump. “There are a lot of candidates that have staying power, whether it’s by living off the land or a super PAC or a combination.”
If there was any encouraging news from New Hampshire for national Republican leaders, it may have been from the Democratic primary, where Hillary Clinton lost by a lopsided margin to Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running on a hard-edge message of economic populism.
Democrats acknowledged Tuesday that the anger that rippled through the Republican electorate had also crossed party lines and unsettled a race in which Clinton once seemed to have an open path to the party’s nomination.
Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic Party chairman, said he expected a long fight on the Democratic side, even if Clinton regains a measure of momentum in the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses later this month.
“Hillary is going to do much better in states that look much more like the rest of America,” said Dean, who is supporting Clinton.
The state of the Democratic race would be more concerning, he said, if not for the apparent disarray on the Republican side. Both Trump and Cruz are seen as vulnerable in a general election because of their hard-line politics.
As election returns in New Hampshire gave little clarity to the Republican race beyond Trump’s victory, the band of longer-shot contenders announced plans to campaign Wednesday in South Carolina. Rubio, Bush and Cruz have divided up many of the most consequential endorsements there, and George W. Bush, the former president, is expected to campaign for his brother in the state.
Kasich and Christie have vowed to compete hard in South Carolina. But Kasich’s moderate brand of Republican politics will likely be a tougher sell there than in New Hampshire.
And Christie’s relatively weak finish in New Hampshire may hobble his efforts there: It is unclear whether he will qualify for the debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, and after Tuesday’s vote, he said he was heading home to New Jersey to “take a deep breath” and take stock of his presidential bid.
After South Carolina, the Republican race may grow even friendlier for Trump and Cruz as the campaign heads to a series of conservative Southern states in March.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said Republican voters would either coalesce behind a single challenger to Trump and Cruz after the South Carolina primary or risk a totally inconclusive free-for-all stretched out over 50 states.
“We’ll know after South Carolina,” said Gregg, who is a Bush supporter. “I mean, if four people come out of South Carolina, we’re into a brokered convention.”