Is there any reason for the GOP establishment not to go all-in for Rubio at this point?

Just something I was thinking about last night, and have to think about again today now that I see Lindsey Graham’s trying to decide between Rubio and — groan — Jeb Bush.

One Graham confidante says the senator’s instinct would be to go with Bush – partly out of his deep loyalty and affection for the Bush family – but that “he’s not going to throw his endorsement away if Jeb has no chance.”

This sets up the question of timing: Would a Graham endorsement be more useful to a candidate in January, or straight out of the New Hampshire primary result in February?

Bush may not have that long to wait, as he’s betting his entire campaign on an impressive top-flight showing in the Granite State. But if he doesn’t place in the top three there, his candidacy is likely doomed. That’s why the Bush camp has been moving fast to cobble together a list of endorsements peeled away from Graham. An adviser tells U.S. News he is confident the Bush campaign will be able to roll out a significant chunk of the Graham coalition as its own in the coming days, if not sooner.

Rubio is currently running third in South Carolina behind Trump and Cruz, and may end up being the more viable bet for Graham, who glowingly deemed the freshman senator “the son of Ronald Reagan” during a stop in Anderson, South Carolina, in the summer of 2014. Months later, though, Graham told The Weekly Standard his colleague was “not quite ready” and “so afraid of the right.”

Graham’s endorsement, like McCain’s endorsement, might mean less than nothing to you but it could mean something to very hawkish voters in New Hampshire and to non-tea-party Republicans generally in South Carolina. If those races are close, Graham matters. Everyone matters. So here’s my question for “everyone”: Why are you having trouble deciding between Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Christie? I think we all agree that those are the only three center-right Republicans with any chance of winning New Hampshire, yes? (Don’t say Kasich. No one likes Kasich. C’mon.) In that case, make an argument that Bush or Christie is somehow better equipped than Rubio not just to run a long national race but to beat the populist dynamic duo of Trump and Cruz. Because in the end, that’s what matters, or should matter, for the center-right. They’ve always been a bit more transactional in their politics than the conservative ideologues backing Cruz and the nationalist coalition backing Trump. They have their preferences, but in the end it’s chiefly about finding the guy who can win. Who, of the remaining three “somewhat conservative” candidates, is the guy who can win?

Can Christie? Christie, like Kasich, is essentially re-running the Huntsman 2012 strategy. Forget everything except New Hampshire — Iowa, South Carolina, the SEC primary, none of it matters without winning NH, so camp out in NH and win there and then … what? What happens to Chris Christie if he wins New Hampshire? His “strategy,” such as it is, is to count on momentum from a big win plus the sheer volume of anti-Trump, anti-Cruz sentiment among the center-right to propel him to the nomination. That’s less of a “strategy,” though, than blind faith in political gravity and his own retail skills to somehow outgun Trump’s far bigger media megaphone and Cruz’s shrewd, painstaking organizational skill. And there’s no reason to think the field would clear for Christie: Even if you assume that Trump would be knocked out of the race after losing New Hampshire, Rubio will probably stick around after losing there and see if he can regroup by finishing high in South Carolina and winning Nevada. Whether he should do that and continue to draw votes away from Christie when Cruz is a serious threat to win is a separate question, but Rubio at least has an organization in various early states. (Imagine how effective that organization might be if he was actually campaigning!) He’s preparing for life after New Hampshire. Is Christie? If not, why on earth would the donor class and prominent establishment Republicans put their chips on a candidate who’s unprepared against a formidable insurgent like Ted Cruz? Beyond all that, why would you gamble on a true centrist like Christie when you have an alternative like Rubio who has centrist credentials on some important issues (i.e. immigration) and conservative cred capable of peeling right-wing votes away from Cruz on others? Rubio’s better positioned to consolidate different wings of the party. With Christie, it’d be a true “centrist versus conservative” race against Cruz, which is a big risk — especially if Trump fans line up with Cruz.

So what about Jeb Bush, you say? To which I say: What about him? After everything we’ve been through with Jeb, what Republican in his right mind would want to go all in on him against Cruz head to head? Look at these numbers:

Jeb has the opposite problem Christie does. He’s got the money and organization for a long race but no retail skill. And he has liabilities that Christie doesn’t which won’t be shed even with a surprise win in New Hampshire. One, of course, is Bush baggage: He’s the only potential nominee who can’t use an “old news” or “dynasty” argument against Hillary, and Dubya’s record on Iraq will obscure her own errors on foreign policy. (Then again, as famous superhawks, Rubio and Christie won’t have much ammo against her on, say, Libya either.) The more immediate problem, though, is that I think responding to Trumpmania with a renewed push for Bush 3.0 at this point is as likely to rupture the party as nominating Trump is. The symbolism is simply too awful — after six months of Trump leading the polls and galvanizing disaffected Republicans, the rest of the party is going to turn around and shove another Bush in their snout? With Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio standing by as alternatives? That would be so fantastically tone-deaf, I don’t see how Trump and Cruz fans could go forward into battle with the rest of the GOP in the general election. At a bare minimum, the Trump phenomenon means that the next nominee needs to be different. He could be very different, as Trump is; he could be superficially different, as the young Latino (but otherwise McCain-esque) star Rubio is; or he could be ideologically different, as the stalwart conservative Cruz is. But it can’t be a Bush. Not now.

Which means, by process of elimination, it’s Rubio. If you’re center-right, he’s not your best bet, he’s your only bet. He might not get Trump fans to turn out for him but the rest of Romney’s 2012 base will and Rubio’s personally likable enough (and Hillary’s unlikable enough) that he might win swing voters this time. Or maybe he won’t; maybe he’s destined to lose too, but like I say, to the center-right it shouldn’t matter. If they think Cruz and Trump are sure losers in the general, and if Christie and Bush are both longshots in the primary, then Rubio’s the only option. And I assume most big-name Republicans, increasingly terrified by Trump’s popularity and Cruz’s organizational strength, understand that. If they’re holding off on endorsing Rubio now, it’s probably because (a) they don’t want to have to insult Bush and Christie by backing Rubio until it’s absolutely necessary, and (b) for maximum impact on late deciders in New Hampshire, of which there’ll be many, their endorsements should be rolled out in late January or early February. I’ll be shocked, for instance, if you don’t see Romney and/or McCain announce for Rubio at the scripted moment, in order to nudge him past Jeb and Christie. The risk in waiting, though, is obvious: The longer they hold off, hoping to time their Rubio support for jussssst the right instant, the more time Christie has to pass him in the polls and the more time Jeb has to catch up to Rubio. Imagine if Romney et al. decide they’re staying put until February 2nd and then a poll drops in New Hampshire in mid-January showing Christie at 18 percent, Rubio at 15, and Jeb at 14. With the center-right that closely divided, it might be too late by then for a wave of endorsements to move the numbers much. Which means you’re looking at either Trump or Cruz winning New Hampshire and the other finishing second and the center-right champion third. Where does that leave the race before South Carolina? If Rubio finishes fourth behind Christie in NH, the beating he’ll take in the media for underperforming will be vicious. If he hangs in there anyway, the center-right might end up in South Carolina with another divided vote while Cruz or Trump wins the state. If I were a big-name Republican like Mitt, I’d endorse Rubio the first week of January, when people start paying attention to politics again, and then hit the trail for him ASAP. There’s really no time to waste to beat back Christie and Bush, especially with Rubio himself being knocked lately for not putting in enough face time in the early states.

Exit question via Nate Cohn: Could Rubio win the nomination without winning any early states? My feeling about this is that it’d be like winning the Super Bowl despite being down four touchdowns at halftime. It’s possible, but you’d bet against it. Heavily.

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