Trump’s poll numbers were in fact inflated, with a lack of organizational strength undercutting his results. He finished with about 24 percent. An unusually gracious and subdued Trump told his supporters, “We finished second, and I want to tell you something: I’m just honored.” For the first time — in defeat — he seemed like a legitimate, plausible candidate.
The big question now is whether the GOP was scared but not scarred by the Trump phenomenon. If Trump now fades, the GOP of 2016 will resemble the GOP or 2012 or 2008: A fiery right-winger who wooed evangelical voters won Iowa. Ho-hum. There, however, may very well be new twists and turns. Republicans will be poised to see if the polls in New Hampshire reflect Trump’s loss, knocking him down from his perch there too.
And the “real winner,” as the MSM likes to say, is Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who took in about 23 percent, far outpacing his polling and virtually tying Trump. He withstood an avalanche of negative ads, most particularly from Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC. Mike Huckabee has announced he is getting out of the race, the beginning — Rubio hopes — of a stampede of dropouts that will leave him as the standard bearer of the mainstream Republican majority.
In an upbeat speech that had the air of a victory celebration, Rubio was defiant — reminding the crowd that party insiders said he could not do it, that his hair was not gray enough, his boots were too tall and he had to wait his turn. It was the sort of good-humored optimism that is standing him in good stead. He declared Hillary Clinton was “disqualified” from being commander in chief for her mishandling of top secret information and for purportedly lying to the families of the men killed in Benghazi, Libya. He wrapped up, much the way he began, his run with an appeal to the “New American Century.”
After months of turmoil and jaw-dropping polls, media coverage and debates, the race could now settle into a predictable pattern — the far right insurgent Cruz against the middle-of-the-road Rubio, who hopes to eventually pull in supporters of candidates like Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and others. Before we get there, however, comes New Hampshire, which is now a must-win state for Trump. If he loses twice it is hard to see him going forward. It will also be the moment of truth for many candidates, the final chance for them to establish themselves as contenders.