For months, many political observers — your humble blogger included — have assumed that Donald Trump would simply have to fall to Earth at some point. The rules of political gravity dictate as much. When Ben Carson rocketed to the top of polls, many similarly expected those rules to eventually apply to Carson, too.

But the political classes are now taking seriously the possibility that either Trump or Carson could win in Iowa or New Hampshire, after which all bets truly are off.

Republicans are now seizing on the terrorist attacks in France to argue that this time, GOP voters will simply have to turn away from Trump and Carson and instead give renewed attention to the GOP candidates with governing experience. But how many times have we been told that this or that event or factor is finally what will deflate Trump’s (and, now, Carson’s) chances? Also, doesn’t it seem possible that the attacks might give Trump’s immigration rhetoric a boost among GOP voters?

Chris Cillizza delivered the bad news to Republicans over the weekend, noting that the holiday season now starts, which means less voter interest, which in turn means that the dynamic of the moment might be frozen in place when the voting starts:

In virtually every national poll of Republican voters, Carson and Trump not only lead the rest of the field by a wide margin, but also combine to take well north of 50 percent of the total vote. Carson is the favorite in Iowa, while Trump remains the front-runner in the New Hampshire primary….
Put simply: Any Republican who tells you that Trump and/or Carson are a fad who will fade before Iowa is engaging in the most wishful of thinking. It’s a near-certainty at this point that the top tier going into Iowa will look almost exactly like it does today — Carson and Trump at the top, with Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) inching upward.

Rubio, of course, is widely seen as the most likely to emerge as the leading alternative to Trump. But keep Cillizza’s analysis in mind as you go back and read Norman Ornstein’s explanation for why Rubio’s path might prove tougher than many think:

For those who still see Rubio as, by far, the most likely nominee, consider the following scenario. Rubio finishes fourth or worse in Iowa; does not finish in the top three in New Hampshire; loses to Trump, Carson, or Cruz in South Carolina. Not much momentum for him at that point. Even a victory or second-place finish in the small Nevada caucuses would not help much. Then comes Super Tuesday, with a heavy concentration in the South, where the insurgent forces are especially strong.
To be sure, there are some moderate states on Super Tuesday — Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota — but those are states where John Kasich and Jeb Bush are highly attractive. The next big opportunity for Rubio is March 15, when Florida joins Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Kasich, if he is still alive and well, would be the prohibitive favorite in his native Ohio. But one can easily imagine Bush and Rubio canceling each other out in their native Florida, perhaps even enabling a Trump or Cruz (who might take some of the Cuban-American vote from Rubio) to win a plurality victory.

And Ornstein wrote this before Cruz began to seriously emerge as a major contender. Cruz has since shown that he must be taken very seriously indeed, which could complicate Rubio’s efforts to win conservative support while also emerging as the GOP establishment’s pick. To be sure, as I noted on Friday, it is still very possible that Trump’s and Carson’s support mostly reflects media attention, celebrity, notoriety, and name recognition, and that order will soon be restored to the universe. But it’s now looking more and more possible that we may have to rip up the old rule book.

As GOP consultant Steve Schmidt has put it: “Anybody who thinks Donald Trump cannot be the Republican nominee is smoking something.” That’s almost certainly not true of Carson. Still, we now cannot rule out the possibility that Carson or Trump could win in Iowa, or — even more preposterously — that each could win one of the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. And then what?

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* REPUBLICANS HOPE AND PRAY PARIS ATTACKS SHIFT RACE: Bloomberg reports that GOP strategists predict the France attacks may mark a turning point when GOP voters turned from Donald Trump and Ben Carson towards candidates with governing experience. One says:

“This reframes the candidate choice in the eyes of many voters. This race could potentially swing away from candidates who were offering the outsider argument and instead swing toward those candidates touting a more serious and substantive agenda with regard to national security and foreign policy.”

Keep hope alive, guys! The clock is ticking, and the voting is fast approaching.

He has more cash than any other Republican candidate. He is organized in every county in the first four voting states. And he has served up one strong debate performance after the next….Cruz still lags Trump and Carson. But friends and foes alike say Cruz is the candidate best positioned to benefit should either of those poll-leaders stumble.

This is one reason why the battle between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz over who hates “amnesty” more will really be something to watch.

* HILLARY WON THE DEBATE, FOCUS GROUP FINDS: The New York Times reports that Iowa voters in a focus group scored Hillary Clinton the clear winner of the debate:

All 33 likely caucus-goers in the group thought Mrs. Clinton would be the stronger commander in chief, said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant who conducted the focus group. “It was clear that Clinton’s answers on terrorism, and her improved answers on domestic issues, moved undecided Iowans in striking ways,’’ he said. Mr. Kofinis identified one vulnerability: Mrs. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, exemplified by an answer to a question about accepting donations from rich bankers that has been widely mocked.

Yes, but what do actual voters know about what counts as winning a debate?

Clinton deserves credit for refusing to use the magic words that conservatives now demand politicians recite, as if merely intoning them would vanquish the enemy. No, she would not condemn “radical Islam” and she cited George W. Bush, not a Democratic habit, for his repeated proclamations that, as he once said, “ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith.” Her refusal to pander was a presidential moment, whether it hurts her politically or not.

But E.J., everyone knows that GOP attacks on her over this just have to work, because Republicans are always presumed to have the advantage on national security issues, whether or not they actually do on any given question.

* SANDERS ROLLS OUT FAMILY LEAVE PLAN: Bernie Sanders over the weekend rolled out a plan to provide workers with three months of paid leave after a child is born, to be paid for by a small tax increase on workers that would average around $72 per year. He challenged Clinton to embrace his ambitious policy.

This is Sanders trying to outflank Clinton on an issue that she has focused hard on, as part of her effort to make family-friendly workplace flexibility policies more central to her platform than her rivals had done. Sanders had been more focused on the preoccupations of the “Elizabeth Warren wing of the party — the minimum wage, breaking up the big banks, etc. — but that may be changing.

* OBAMA’S STATEMENT ON ISIS, IN CONTEXT: In the wake of the horrific attacks in France, there’s been a lot of criticism of Obama for claiming recently that ISIS has been “contained.” But Politifact takes a hard look at his full statement, and determines that in context, he was plainly saying they had been geographically contained.

Conclusion: “We surveyed a number of experts, and they all said Obama is accurate when he says ISIS hasn’t gained territory in Iraq and Syria in recent months, though it does not give a full picture of ISIS’s global reach.”

 * AND LATEST OBAMACARE REPEAL PUSH IS FIZZING: The Hill reports:

Senate GOP leaders had hoped to move a House-passed package repealing parts of the controversial healthcare reform law before Thanksgiving. But that plan has been shelved amid party turmoil. Senate Republican sources say the measure, which has encountered opposition from conservatives and moderates, albeit for different reasons, will have to wait until after Thanksgiving. Some say it could slide into next year.

Simply awful. The republic will never recover from any failure to get Obama to veto an Obamacare repeal bill.