Ru­bio’s anti-Cruz path to nom­i­na­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Jonathan Bern­stein E-mail Bloomberg View colum­nist Jonathan Bern­stein at jbern­stein62@ bloomberg.net.

Na­tional Re­view’s Tim Alberta and Eliana John­son re­port a po­ten­tially im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment: The emer­gence of an Any­body-But-Cruz-(Ex­cep­tTrump) move­ment from the soon-to-be ashes of the Iowa cam­paigns of Mike Huck­abee and Rick San­to­rum. It would seem that some so­cial con­ser­va­tives, in­clud­ing a few cur­rently sup­port­ing the last two Iowa win­ners, con­sider Sen. Ted Cruz a “phony op­por­tunist” — and would rather see Sen. Marco Ru­bio do well if their own can­di­dates don’t have an un­ex­pected late surge.

It’s worth look­ing at the num­bers. Huck­abee and San­to­rum com­bined have a whop­ping 2.8 per­cent of the Iowa vote in the lat­est Huf­fPoll­ster es­ti­mate. Even if that sup­port trans­ferred to Ru­bio, he’d move up from a dis­tant third to a not-quite-so-dis­tant third. At the mo­ment, he’s about 16 per­cent­age points be­hind Trump, and 18 be­hind Cruz. And as long as Huck­abee and San­to­rum re­main ac­tive can­di­dates, they’ll prob­a­bly keep most of that sup­port any­way.

The real ques­tion, then, is whether the Any­body But Cruz folks have any sig­nif­i­cant sway not only among cur­rent Huck­abee and San­to­rum supporters, but within the im­por­tant Iowa Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive net­works that backed those two politi­cians in 2008 and 2012. If they do have in­flu­ence, they might be able to also pick off some votes now headed to­ward Ben Car­son (7.7 per­cent in Huf­fPoll­ster’s Iowa es­ti­mate), Cruz and per­haps even some of the other can­di­dates.

The big goal for Ru­bio in the early states is to be­come one of the two or three can­di­dates to sur­vive Iowa, New Hamp­shire, South Carolina and Ne­vada, pre­sum­ably along with Trump and/or Cruz. As long as he’s able to de­feat ev­ery­one else in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, he prob­a­bly will achieve that goal. What’s more, the best way to fin­ish bet­ter than Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Ka­sich in New Hamp­shire would be to be a per­ceived “win­ner” in Iowa, which could hap­pen if he fin­ished a strong third, with the oth­ers far be­hind.

Right now, Ru­bio, Christie, Bush, Ka­sich and Carly Fio­r­ina com­bine for about 44 per­cent in New Hamp­shire polling; win­ning two-thirds of that vote would (based on cur­rent polls) put any of them in the over­all New Hamp­shire lead. So far, how­ever, that vote is scat­tered, with Ru­bio get­ting just 14.1 per­cent in the Gran­ite State (sec­ond to Trump’s 26.2 per­cent). It’s easy to see a big burst of pos­i­tive public­ity for one of them com­ing out of Iowa re­al­lo­cat­ing those votes very quickly.

Which is why Ru­bio wants to main­tain a solid sep­a­ra­tion be­tween him­self and the rest of the pack in Iowa — and why even a few per­cent­age points could be im­por­tant. Me­dia re­ac­tions aren’t all that pre­dictable, but it sure seems likely that a solid 20-per­cent, third-place fin­ish (or bet­ter) could make Ru­bio an Iowa “win­ner,” and highly vis­i­ble Repub­li­cans who sup­port Ru­bio could am­plify that mes­sage in the neu­tral and Repub­li­can-aligned me­dia. On the other hand, if Ru­bio lev­els off and barely holds third place — or does worse — he’s likely to be ig­nored in the me­dia in the en­su­ing week, and there­fore prob­a­bly would dis­ap­point in New Hamp­shire.

So it’s easy to dis­miss the lit­tle sup­port Huck­abee and San­to­rum have to trans­fer to any­one, but it’s also not hard to see how even a fairly small Any­body But Cruz move­ment among so­cial con­ser­va­tives could make a big dif­fer­ence.

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