In the meantime, the race to be the angry outsider seems to have gotten off the rails. Knowing nothing about Washington appears to be the ultimate virtue. Having any insight about the problems that really exist in Washington appears to be a contaminant. For a while, Trump seemed to outflank everybody in this regard, becoming the candidate that not only was not a Washington insider, but also didn’t appear to have a basic grasp of ninth-grade American civics. Obviously, we can’t completely ignore Trump just because he came in second in Iowa. He could still shape the race, but maybe the Iowa caucuses were an indication that his gravitational pull isn’t as strong as it once was. But let’s ignore him for a moment and pretend this is mostly a Cruz-Rubio race as we head into New Hampshire.
Both Cruz and Rubio represent a generational change for the Republican Party, but they are calling for different trajectories. On immigration, taxes and foreign policy — among other issues — they have real, substantive differences. Stylistically, Cruz presents himself as the more angry of the two. Well, it’s been an open question in my mind whether 2016 is the year of the angry candidate — so does that give Cruz an edge?
Rubio, on the other hand, tries to appeal to voters through his personal story. His pitch is earnest and resonates with many voters, but he sometimes struggles to not look scripted. In an election where voters want authenticity, his refusal to admit he has changed his mind on immigration, as showcased in the last Republican debate, could hurt him.
Personally, I can live with either Cruz or Rubio. I don’t have the Cruz allergy many of my Washington friends suffer from. New Hampshire will be a good indication of the primary path to come for both candidates. If Cruz can continue to do well in New Hampshire, a state that lacks the evangelical nature of Iowa voters and where Cruz has spent less time, it will obviously be good for him. And if Rubio has another strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, the establishment may begin to coalesce around him as its candidate.
That being said, there are still other viable candidates in the race, and we are finally getting to the group knife-fight that campaign 2016 was always meant to be. Some recent Washington Post headlines are telling, including “In New Hampshire, GOP governors take aim at a resurgent Marco Rubio” and “In a return to New Hampshire, Donald Trump returns to form” — and “returning to form” doesn’t mean air kisses and hugs for Trump’s critics and opponents. New Hampshire is the vital next step in producing a winner in the Republican primary, but it won’t be because anyone soars to victory. It will be more like who is the last man standing.