A BLEAK SEA­SON FOR MAIN­STREAM CON­SER­VA­TIVES

Ad­vis­ers to 4 say they have shot at tripping up lead­ers Trump, Cruz

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Balz

Over the past sev­en­months, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nat­ing cam­paign has been mostly about Don­ald Trump. Or it has been about the rise of the out­siders. Main­stream can­di­dates have strug­gled as never be­fore.

des moines, iowa » This year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign has proved to be a bleak sea­son for main­stream con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates, a story of frus­tra­tion, re­jec­tion and dis­ap­point­ment. Butwill that be the end of the story, or are re­vival and re­demp­tion still pos­si­ble?

It’s pos­si­ble that re­jec­tion of the es­tab­lish­ment will be the end of the story. It could hap­pen if Don­ald Trump rolls through the Iowa cau­cuses Mon­day, wins the Feb. 9 New Hamp­shire pri­mary hand­ily and uses those two states as a spring­board to a big vic­tory in the Feb. 20 South Carolina pri­mary.

Win­ning that tri­fecta would put Trump in a political cat­e­gory all his own, the first Repub­li­can other than a sit­ting pres­i­dent to sweep the first three con­tests on the cal­en­dar. Few can­di­dates go un­de­feated, but at that point, many strate­gists be­lieve Trump would be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to stop en route to one of the most sur­pris­ing nom­i­na­tion vic­to­ries of all time.

There’s an­other pos­si­ble sce­nario that could leave the es­tab­lish­ment shut out. That’s one that­would start with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas de­feat­ing Trump here Mon­day night, us­ing that vic­tory to fin­ish se­cond be­hind Trump in New Hamp­shire and sub­se­quently turn South Carolina and later con­tests in March into a two-per­son race.

Ad­vis­ers to four re­main­ing main­stream can­di­dates — for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich and U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida— dis­count ei­ther of those out­comes. All see events that­would bring one or two of the main­stream con­ser­va­tives into gen­uine com­pe­ti­tion and pos­si­ble vic­tory. What they need is time, pa­tience and what all suc­cess­ful politi­cians have: luck.

“I think it’s com­ing,” said a strate­gist for one of th­ese can­di­dates who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to of­fer a strate­gic as­sess­ment. “But it’s not go­ing to ma­te­ri­al­ize un­til the field sig­nif­i­cantly win­nows down. … So, un­til the vot­ers get their say in at least one or two states and start the win­now­ing process them­selves, I think we’re go­ing to be stuck with the bi­fur­ca­tion that we have right now.”

Over the past seven months, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nat­ing cam­paign has been mostly about Trump. Or it has been about the rise of the out­siders, can­di­dates in ad­di­tion to Trump, such as Ben Car­son and Carly Fio­r­ina, who have never held pub­lic of­fice, and Cruz, who long has fought the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment.

Main­stream can­di­dates have strug­gled as never be­fore. Be­cause there was no next-in-line can­di­date, no heir ap­par­ent among them, es­tab­lish­ment sup­port splin­tered, pit­ting the four can­di­dates against one an­other to squab­ble among them­selves for that por­tion of the pie. And, they have been con­ven­tional in an un­con­ven­tional year.

As one strate­gist de­scribed the im­bal­ance in the race to date as “an anti-es­tab­lish­ment su­per­high­way and an es­tab­lish- ment dirt path.”

What is most strik­ing about the as­sess­ments of how es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates get back into the fight is a con­sen­sus that it will not hap­pen quickly, that it will re­quire the ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb a se­ries of losses be­fore the dy­namic shifts.

What could start this process is a sur­pris­ingly strong fin­ish here by Ru­bio, who is hop­ing for two things to hap­pen Mon­day. First and most im­por­tant is to fin­ish well ahead of the other es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates by fin­ish­ing far ahead of Bush, Ka­sich and Christie. Next — and what would con­ceiv­ably shorten the time­line to put him into real com­pe­ti­tion for the nom­i­na­tion— would be fin­ish­ing as close as pos­si­ble, or even over­tak­ing who­ever fin­ishes se­cond here.

At this mo­ment, Ru­bio is seen as the can­di­date with the best chance to emerge from the es­tab­lish­ment lane, al­though that comes with sig­nif­i­cant caveats about whether he lives up to the po­ten­tial that ad­mir­ers see in him. What could knock him back would be to fall short of ex­pec­ta­tions by fin­ish­ing be­hind Car­son in Iowa.

Start­ing Tues­day, the com­pe­ti­tion for se­cond in the Gran­ite State will be in­cred­i­bly fierce. Ka­sich’s team be­lieves he is the es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date with mo­men­tum in New Hamp­shire. Bush’s team be­lieves that his de­bate per­for­mance and polls show­ing amash-up for se­cond give him an op­por­tu­nity that didn’t seem pos­si­ble two months ago, but he­must avoid a de­bil­i­tat­ing fin­ish in Iowa. Christie has spent more time there than any of the oth­ers but will need an ex­cep­tional week of cam­paign­ing.

Un­less there is a sin­gle dom­i­nant es­tab­lish­ment per­for­mance in New Hamp­shire, strate­gists be­lieve that at least two main­stream can­di­dates will move on to com­pete in South Carolina, pos­si­bly all four. But pri­mary re­sults can be cruel, with the dif­fer­ence be­tween vi­a­bil­ity in fu­ture con­tests and pres­sure to get out of the race de­ter­mined by only a few per- cen­t­age points, no mat­ter what spin the cam­paigns put on a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-place fin­ish.

Astring of losses is rarely a strat­egy for win­ning a nom­i­na­tion, al­though in 1992, Bill Clin­ton lost 10 of the first 11 con­tests be­fore start­ing a win­ning streak that sal­vaged his can­di­dacy. What gives es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates some rea­son for op­ti­mism is that the con­tests be­tween Mon­day and March 14 will award del­e­gates on a pro­por­tional ba­sis. A win­ning can­di­date might claim mo­men­tum but would be able to amass a big del­e­gate lead over the next six weeks.

That’s why Ru­bio’s team be­lieves that the sur­vival strat­egy even­tu­ally can be a win­ning strat­egy. Two things will have to hap­pen, how­ever. One is that es­tab­lish­ment money will have to co­a­lesce around a sin­gle main­stream can­di­date. So far, that hasn’t hap­pened and prob­a­bly won’t un­til af­ter Su­per Tues­day on March 1. But some strate­gists be­lieve that who­ever ends up as the re­main­ing es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date will re­ceive an un­prece­dented fi­nan­cial wind­fall some­time in March.

The se­cond is that sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Repub­li­can vot­ers de­cide they can­not choose ei­ther Trump or Cruz as the party’s nom­i­nee and swing de­ci­sively be­hind the re­main­ing es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date.

Right now, Cruz is the most dis­liked by the es­tab­lish­ment. Al­though there are some main­stream Repub­li­cans mak­ing them­selves more com­fort­able with the prospect of Trump as nom­i­nee, oth­ers are de­ter­mined to do ev­ery­thing they can to high­light all the ways in which Trump’s po­si­tions, cur­rent or past, run counter to con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples. That, they say, will be eas­ier when he is iso­lated against a sin­gle es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date.

That’s the hope for the be­lea­guered es­tab­lish­ment wing of the Repub­li­can Party. Their fear is that, by the time their mo­ment ar­rives, it could be too late.

Scott Olson, Getty Im­ages

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump speaks to guests dur­ing a rally at the air­port on Satur­day in Dubuque, Iowa. Trump is in Iowa try­ing to gain sup­port ahead of the state’s cau­cuses onMon­day.

An­drew Harnik, The Assocaited Press

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton, ac­com­pa­nied by her daugh­ter Chelsea Clin­ton, speaks Satur­day at the African-Amer­i­can Fes­ti­val, I’ll MakeMe aWorld in Iowa, at the Iowa Events Cen­ter in DesMoines, Iowa.

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