Republican regulars and even a New York Times columnist breathed a sigh of relief after Marco Rubio’s Iowa showing. The Times Frank Bruni wrote that the “caucuses augured the possibility of a retreat from the party’s craziness.” It probably just augured a retreat from sounding totally crazy.
The media narrative is that Rubio outperformed “expectations.” By default, he’s the moderate. That struck me as odd because his programmed belligerence in the January 28 debate was followed by only a vague boastfulness about American power. The debate transcript doesn’t do justice to Rubio’s performance but you can pick it up here at about the 19:20 mark. He was pretty specific about the horror of ISIS –
ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides. ISIS is a group that wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown in the city of Dabiq . . . They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown.
This group needs to be confronted and defeated. They are not going to go away on their own. They're not going to turn into stockbrokers overnight or open up a chain of car washes. They need to be defeated militarily, and that will take overwhelming U.S. force.
Rubio played enough on fear to fit the Republican narrative, but what exactly does “that will take overwhelming U.S. force” mean? Is Rubio talking ground troops, occupation, for how long? Is he edging toward Cruz, with his talk of making “sand glow in the dark” and of “carpet bombing,” ideas so extreme that even Cruz won’t take them to their logical end. It sounds tough but it is mush.
So will party “intense policy demanders” get their way? You can’t rule it out. As the authors of The Party Decides note, the party may decide late as in 1988 when the Democrats let the candidates slug it out for a bit before the party eventually coalesced around Dukakis. Trump is still in it, Cruz is still in it, and they probably both will be for a while. (TPD notes that the 1988 scenario is not strong support for their theory, other than the party was in the process of rejecting front runner Gary Hart until his Monkey Business excursion finished him off).
TPD theory focuses on endorsements as a signal from the party, and the Fivethirtyeight Endorsement Primary tracker is interesting. Rubio has just surpassed Bush; he has 60 points to Bush’s fifty-one. Christie is third with 26 points but he’ll get an additional 10 for Governor Baker’s endorsement. Kasich has 20, then Cruz with nineteen. No sign of Trump – no endorsements.
Rubio has picked up nine endorsements since Iowa including two senators. Before Iowa, Rubio hadn’t gotten an endorsement since January 9, one of only two he received that month. Bush got Senator Lindsey Graham on January 15, but only one endorsement the prior month, on December 8. Christie hasn’t had an endorsement since Dec. 4, but he’ll get Baker’s today. Kasich got one in January; his prior one was in October (both from his home state). There are thirty-one sitting Republican governors, but put aside Christie and Kasich. That leaves twenty-nine, and only five (including Baker) have endorsed. One of them endorsed Mike Huckabee. There is a lot of GOP firepower on the sidelines.
The Boston Globe has a different kind of endorsement tracker for New Hampshire leaders. What is interesting is that the top four endorsees are the same as in the 538 tracker, albeit a different order: Kasich, Christie, and Bush tied with twelve endorsements, then Rubio, Cruz and Carly Fiorina with eight, Trump with three including Scott Brown. The two different endorsement trackers tell us that the regular party activists don’t want Cruz or especially, Trump.
The Times reported yesterday that Bush’s SuperPAC has already spent $20 million attacking Rubio, and today reports that the Bush and Christie teams are coordinating attacks on Rubio. It all “augurs” for a stormy debate on Saturday night.