I wonder why.

PPP’s newest look ahead to the 2016 Presidential race in New Hampshire finds no clear leader. Rand Paul’s at 20% to 19% for Chris Christie, 14% for Jeb Bush, 12% for Kelly Ayotte, 10% for Ted Cruz, 7% for Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, 3% for Bobby Jindal, and 2% for Rick Santorum.

The field we used for this poll is not exactly the same as April- Ayotte and Cruz replaced Susana Martinez and Rick Perry, who had received little support. But at any rate it’s clear Marco Rubio has fallen precipitously, from 25% then to his current 7% standing. Paul’s dropped by 8 points as well, perhaps because the kind of voters who are attracted to him might also be attracted to Cruz. The potential candidates on the rise are Christie (from 14% to 19%) and Bush (from 7% to 14%).

The more you see polls showing Jeb Bush gobbling up moderate votes from Christie and Cruz gobbling up conservative votes from Paul, the easier it is to believe that the nomination might end up being decided by who chooses not to run. If Paul can convince Cruz to pass and endorse him, maybe with the offer of a plum appointment from President Paul in return, he’s positioned to clean up on the right. I still think righties who distrust Paul on foreign policy might opt for Rubio or some other conservative if Paul’s the only alternative, but Cruz is obviously the main threat. Meanwhile, Christie needs Bush out (or vice versa) so that he’s left alone to consolidate the center while conservatives are busy carving up righties. It’s fascinating to me that both he and Jeb seemed to benefit here as Rubio declined after April over amnesty. That means, presumably, that a lot of Rubio’s prior support was fairly moderate in its own right, but not so moderate that they’d be willing to tolerate a big sellout on amnesty.

Theory, then: Even though the centrists seemingly benefited, ultimately Rubio’s decline is better for conservatives for the simple reason that it’s more likely to keep Jeb Bush in the presidential picture. One of the key questions of the primary is whether Bush and Rubio would or could both run given how their bases in Florida overlap. The more Rubio fades, the more inclined he’ll be to pass on 2016 and retrench for a future run. He’s got time. Bush has less, so if Rubio begs off, Jeb might be inclined to go for it. Whether the GOP establishment will tolerate both him and Christie being in the race is unclear since, the more formidable Paul and/or Cruz look, the more centrists will want to unite early behind one champion. But Rubio flailing makes it more likely to happen, especially if Jeb decides he’s going to try to replace Rubio as some sort of middle-ground option between Christie and Paul. Do righties suspicious of Paul hate Christie so much that they’d consider Bush as a possible compromise candidate? I’m skeptical, but there’s a lot of Christie-hate out there.

By the way, according to the same poll, Hillary leads Christie by four, Bush by nine, and Paul by 10 points even. Exit quotation from Vogue’s profile of Rand Paul:

While her husband jokes that his “gut feeling” that Hillary Clinton will not run for president is a good thing since “all the polls show her trouncing any opponents,” Kelley practically cuts him off to say that Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as First Spouse. “I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women,” she tells me.