Christie was spinning this morning. “I was not going to ignore Iowa because I intend to be the nominee and when I am the nominee I got to go win Iowa to be able to become president. It’s going to be a swing state,” he insisted. “So I didn’t want to show up for the first time in Iowa in August or September and introduce myself. So if you have a long-term view of this, which I do, then you got to go to Iowa, even though you know that they’ve picked [Rick] Santorum, [Mike] Huckabee, and now [Ted] Cruz. That’s not necessarily my sweet spot.” And yet he said he had to do well in Iowa and very well in New Hampshire; he set the bar at beating the other governors.
But all is not glum for Christie. His campaign argues it spent only $600,000 there. His team also makes the case that the field is bunched together with five candidates getting delegates. With a tiny portion of the delegates picked (98.8 percent are left to go!), Christie’s backers take comfort in the notion that the election is still up for grabs and voters are still making up their minds. His challenge will be staying in the limelight in New Hampshire and convincing the media and voters he is a top-tier candidate.
For Bush, the results should be sobering. Whatever massive money haul the super PAC accumulated has done him virtually no good. His unfavorables are high, and his results suggest that as a candidate he is not making the sale. Painful as this is for those who point to his policy prowess, at some point, as the punch line goes, the dogs just won’t eat the dog food. That is what Iowa voters were saying, but it is not out of the question that New Hampshire voters could reach a different conclusion. That, I would suggest, would require three things.
First, Bush personally has been the most aggressive in going after Donald Trump. Bush haters might not like to admit it, but his Trump-bashing certainly may have contributed to Trump’s failure to win. “I hope so,” says Tim Miller, Bush’s communications director. “It’s important to expose Trump and in this media environment that has to happen in debates, on social media and on the stump, and Jeb was relentless in doing so.” Moreover, he looks more confident and feisty doing so; he should keep it up and help to shake loose the moderate and somewhat conservative voters Trump holds.
Second, he should make New Hampshire explicitly his last stand. As a practical matter, it is. Another lagging performance will surely send his donors and backers scurrying and raise the calls among mainstream Republicans for him to get out so as not to help elect Cruz or Trump. It was Sen. John McCain’s single-minded devotion to New Hampshire, putting his fate in the hands of voters he worked so hard to cultivate, that lifted him to victory in 2008. Telling voters, in effect, I have money for the long haul can be received as, “I don’t need your vote so much right now.”
Third, his last debate performance was his best yet, although he did not generate the results he wanted in Iowa. That said, he needs the debate of his life. No shrugging with an exasperated expression, as if to say, “What’d ya want from me?” He should openly mock and denigrate Trump’s ludicrous ideas. He must demonstrate a level of aggressiveness we have not seen, querying Trump. (“What are you going to do if your pal Putin invades a Baltic country? C’mon, let’s hear it.”) The moderators seem disinclined to grill Cruz on his historical revisionism, but Bush should not hold back. (“Ted, what in the world makes you think Gaddafi was our friend or that we can beat the Islamic State with Bashar al-Assad in power?”) Don’t merely argue about what they have said; make them respond to him. As for Bush attacking Rubio, the former Florida governor risks getting booed for attacking the candidate likely to be the person around whom the GOP will coalesce. To get by that he will need some finesse, comparing his own experiences in crisis situations (a hurricane, for example) with the perils of having someone who has never been in that crisis-management mode.
None of this may work. Christie may have missed his chance in 2012. Bush may simply not have the raw political skill and aggressiveness needed to win. But both are accomplished governors and they have one more, but probably only one more, shot to make their pitch to toss the know-nothing posers Trump and Cruz aside.