We do know that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was for weeks the favorite to win in a state tailor-made for someone playing to the right-wing (both secular and evangelical) crowd with plenty of money for a field organization. He’s fallen behind in some polls, most especially in the latest CNN/ORC poll that has him down to Donald Trump by 11, but it’s not clear if this is an outlier. (The sample in the CNN is huge, more than 2,000 Iowans.) Other polls remain in the margin of error. His recent drop into second may be a temporary blip, a function of the media hoopla over Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump. Alternatively, it may be a sign that a week or so on defense has taken a toll on Cruz and that Trump’s last debate performance really did help the billionaire businessman. Trump continues to pull in huge (or “Yuuuge,” as he would say) crowds at events but there remains skepticism about his ability to get these people out for caucus voting.
Behind them, Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) team is no doubt pleased to see their candidate put considerable distance between himself and those expected to do well in New Hampshire (Cruz, Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie). Rubio looks to finish in double digits while the others do not. Rubio’s team argues that as the most frequent victim of attack ads, especially from the Right to Rise SuperPAC, Rubio’s numbers (14 percent in Iowa in the CNN poll) are all the more impressive. As Ben Carson sinks in the polls, Rubio remains optimistic he can pick up support from evangelicals who don’t find Trump or Cruz appealing. Leaving Iowa, Rubio would like nothing better than to give the impression that there are only three viable candidates.
If any other candidate is to break through to do better than “also ran,” the Jan. 28 final debate before the caucuses may well be critical. It’s not only the last time before the caucuses for voters to see the candidates side by side, but coverage of the debate will dominate the weekend news. Any significant shift in opinion won’t be detected until the caucus results come in.
In that final debate the accumulated arguments, attacks and jabs since the Jan. 14 face-off are likely to surface. There will be the “Who’s the real anti-establishment guy?” fight. Everyone wants to that guy, but there is something to be said along the lines that “If you need to argue about it, you’re not the anti-establishment guy.” Here is where Sarah Palin’s endorsement may make a difference. There will also be tussles over flip-flops (Cruz on immigration, Christie on guns, Trump on support for Democrats) and whether candidates have tried to mislead the voters about their changes in position. Christie, Bush and Kasich are still making the experience argument, but it is not clear anyone cares. You’ll notice there’s nothing about substance here, which works to the advantage of those with little to offer beyond bellicose rhetoric.
Jeb Bush, who’s been the busiest on the policy front since the last debate with a new education plan and a meaty presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations, would dearly love to get back to plans, ideas and proposals. Rubio and Bush seem to be the only ones not playing footsie with isolationists. (At CFR, Bush explained, “In this administration, if you’re not like the nuanced— you know, supporting the nuanced view that somehow you’re a warmonger or an occupier or an interventionist and you’re — you know, we’re going back to the language of the ‘60s and ‘70s about our foreign policy. That’s just not true. Engagement is what we need, and I think we could do that in a much more effective way.”)
He no doubt would be happy to confront Trump on China. As he said at CFR, “Someone who proposes a 45 percent tariff across the board on China — it’s not a serious proposal. It’s basically the advocacy of a global depression that will wipe out the middle class in this country and see retaliation that will create — will wreak havoc.” He wants to face off with Rubio and Cruz on their votes against military strikes to enforce the red line. But most of all he hopes to rouse the audience there and in their homes to the notion that we need someone to fix things, not merely holler. (At CFR he said, “I love fixing things. I see a fire, I go to the fire. This is — this is why we reduce — the state of Florida during my time as governor grew by — people voted with their feet — 3 million more people lived in Florida than the day I started.”)
Rubio seems to have found his favorite policy issues to wield against Cruz — the VAT tax and national security. (On whom is the strongest candidate on foreign policy, Rubio, in the last CNN poll, went from 13 percent to 26 percent, a statistical tie with Trump.) And if he is to make the case that most of his opponents are craven opportunists, he will need to defend his immigration stance, stressing border security but holding fast to his view that those advocating mass deportation are conning the public.
We’ll also see how seriously candidates are taking Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has moved up in the New Hampshire polls. If you see Christie attack him on national security (Kasich wants to just police the Iran deal, Christie wants to get rid of it), Bush or Rubio attack him for Medicaid expansion or Cruz call him another establishment Republican, you will know those poll numbers are for real.
A week from today, in the aftermath of the debate, candidates will be in their final sprint. Ideally, they’d like to have an impressive moment that goes viral, but candidates who seem confident of where they are in the race (Trump and Rubio most clearly) will be content with an uneventful outing. Fat chance of that happening. Uneventful is the one thing this race has never been.