A big night for many reasons, starting with the fact that this is the first time Megyn Kelly will be face to face with Trump since the debate last August that inspired his Lincolnian “blood coming out of her wherever” dig. That’s what Kelly got for asking him a question he didn’t like, ironically about things he’s said in the past about women. That was probably also the last time Trump got a hard question from a host at Fox News.
Actually, apart from the Kelly/Trump confrontation, is this a big night? Those who say it is would note that it’s one of the last few chances Rubio (and Kasich) will have to do major damage to Trump on a big stage before the crucial votes in Florida and Ohio. The flaw in that theory is that, the more you do the math, the less crucial Florida and Ohio seem. Politico’s out with a splashy piece today arguing that Rubio effectively has no path to the nomination before the convention, so far behind has he fallen in delegates. And if he wins Florida and keeps going all the way to June, realistically there’s no way to see him uniting the party at a brokered convention. Even if he emerges as the man with the most delegates by the time voting begins in Cleveland, it’s absurd to think Trump fans will rally behind him in the general. He’s not only the candidate from the Gang of Eight, he’s the guy who belittled their man relentlessly on the trail to try to get back in the race. They’ll walk. What good is the nomination of a broken party?
After getting thoroughly routed on Super Tuesday, Rubio is in so deep a delegate hole that he would now need to win roughly two-thirds of all the remaining delegates to guarantee his nomination ahead of Cleveland, according to a POLITICO analysis.
That is an enormously difficult, if not impossible, climb for a candidate who has so far won only a single state, Minnesota, and especially one who is not predicting victory in any of the next dozen states and territories that cast ballots, until his home state of Florida votes on March 15.
“It’s fair to say that Rubio’s path to 1,237 is shot,” Dave Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report who closely tracks the delegate race, said of the threshold to secure the nomination…
The race has become, in the words of the Rubio adviser, “a little bit of three-dimensional chess,” as they cede some states to erstwhile rivals in the name of stopping Trump while trying to simultaneously rack up delegates.
“Cede some states, try to win others!” does not strike me as a sustainable rallying cry turning out droves of Rubio supporters over the next three and a half months, especially if he loses on his home field on March 15th. The #NeverTrump crowd might be willing to keep turning out to cast protest votes for Cruz and/or Rubio, but that’s a small corner of the universe of Republican voters who haven’t committed to Trump yet. How many soft Trump opponents will give up soon and simply decide not to turn out for future primaries, especially once it becomes common knowledge that Rubio is probably the least likely of the big three to be named nominee at a brokered convention? Trump will lead in delegates in Cleveland; Cruz has a foot in the populist and conservative camps, making him a potential compromise choice in a floor fight. Rubio … is Rubio. Is he really going to slog on for three more months only to get stiffed when the delegates vote? And imagine how ugly it might get if he’s not stiffed:
But winning the nomination on a second or third ballot at the convention – which could happen only if Mr. Trump suddenly faltered and was unable to win an outright majority of delegates – would be a potentially explosive event that could tear the party apart.
“It could be 1968 all over again,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist who has worked for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Chris Christie. “There will be riots in the streets of Cleveland. All these Trump people are so whipped up, and then you have the party establishment giving the nomination to the person with the second- or third-most delegates?”
Why would he want to risk surrounding himself with a lingering stench of loserdom, which might jeopardize his chances at winning the governor’s seat in Florida, by running a campaign that now almost certainly can’t end with him being elected president? He’s 44 years old. He can run for the White House again someday, so long as this campaign doesn’t color impressions of him permanently.
But it’s probably too late. Having vowed to win Florida, he’s stuck fighting on, which means he’s bound to come hard after Trump again tonight. Don’t count out the possibility that he’ll hurt Trump, either. Here’s an interesting nugget from New York magazine’s new profile of Mike Bloomberg:
A private poll Bloomberg conducted in late February showed Trump rapidly losing support from mainstream Republicans after being mocked by Rubio as a con man, retweeting a Mussolini quote, and refusing to immediately disavow the KKK. “That did not go over well,” the adviser says. The same poll showed Bloomberg pulling far more votes from the GOP side than the Democrats.
Is that why Trump’s delegate haul on Tuesday, as well as his margin over Rubio in Virginia, was smaller than expected? Rubio’s retired the insult-comic shtick over the past few days but maybe it’s time to bring it back.
As for Cruz, I think he’s stuck with his current approach to Trump: Continue to avoid Rubio-style personal attacks, lest he alienate some populists who’d accept him as a compromise at the convention, and focus on Trump’s record. The upcoming primaries aren’t as hospitable to Cruz as the southern ones were, but he may get some momentum from the fact that he’s now become the only candidate to beat Trump in multiple states. Most of the primaries to come are closed too, which ought to help him and Rubio cut into Trump’s lead. Cruz is another guy, though, whose campaign may not be built for the long haul. He has an incentive to stay in so long as Rubio does, as that’ll increase the odds of a brokered convention, but it’s hard to predict what happens if Rubio gets bounced in Florida on March 15th and drops out. Does that help Cruz by consolidating conservatives behind him or does it hurt when Rubio’s centrist voters break for Trump? What happens when Kasich finally drops and his centrist voters break for Trump? (Which may not be long in coming, as polls in supposedly friendly Michigan show him dead last.) If Trump starts beating Cruz consistently in a two-man race, Cruz arguably has more incentive to make nice with Trump by quitting than by forcing him to fight on to Cleveland. And Cruz, unlike Rubio, has never joined the #NeverTrump contingent. He’s said emphatically that he’ll back the nominee. If you’re looking for a resist-at-all-costs approach, Rubio’s more likely to give it to you than Cruz, which is all the more reason for Cruz not to get personal with Trump tonight. The real question mark at this debate is whether Cruz will attack Rubio, since damaging Rubio before Florida is the surest way for Cruz to force him out of the race. A lot of conservatives will be pissed off at him if he goes after a fellow righty instead of attacking the common enemy. Which way does Cruz go on that?
While we wait for the show to start, read this piece about Trump once again threatening to go third-party even though (a) he’d have a major problem from sore-loser laws at this point, (b) it’s probably too late already to meet some states’ ballot deadlines, (c) it would be stupid beyond belief for a presumptive party nominee to suddenly throw that infrastructure away, and (d) NeverTrumpers have already accepted the GOP losing the election as the price of exorcising Trump and would exult at seeing him leave. If you’re not in the mood for that, enjoy this “bad lip reading” version of Cruz 2016, which drifts a bit in the middle but starts and finishes strong. The last 90 seconds in particular is a virtuoso bit of editing to produce funny and coherent dialogue from what should be inane gibberish. Trump fans and Rubio fans will enjoy it — and hopefully Cruz fans too. If you can’t laugh at your own candidate, you’re too close.