How a Trump victory in South Carolina might set the stage for his ultimate defeat

Comparatively little (like, nothing) has been written about the fact that if you combine the votes of the "Establishment lane" candidates the way the hard-core votes are concentrated behind Ted Cruz and whatever sad adjective describes the Trump voters are concentrated behind Il Duce, that theoretical centrist fusion candidate would have handily won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.The ascendancy of Cruz and even Trump is in no small measure due to the fact that the mainstream Republicans have been divided among five candidates.

Christie and Fiorina are out now. Marco Rubio's bad performance at the New Hampshire debate six days ago allowed Jeb Bush to finish ahead of him. Bush doesn't figure to show up among the leaders in any future primary. And neither does John Kasich, whose surprise second place finish was the story in New Hampshire. Both were one-shot performances based on unique circumstances.

Given a performance in the next debate more similar to his previous performances than to the one Saturday night, the South Carolina primary should mark the beginning of Rubio's drive to equality among the front-runners with Trump and Cruz. He doesn't have to win in South Carolina. All he has to do is finish third, with Bush and Kasich bringing up the rear.

Well-known conservative commentator Bill Kristol reports that a "reputable pollster" he knows well and who is not working for any campaign reports the following result from his organization's polling in South Carolina, whose primary will be held on February 20:

Trump 32%
Cruz 26%
Rubio 20%
Bush 10%
Carson 7%
Kasich 2%

The consensus of the South Carolina polls shows a much closer race between Rubio and Bush though only the Augusta Chronicle Poll isn't contaminated by results predating not only New Hampshire but even Iowa. The Chronicle poll shows these results:

Trump 36%
Cruz 20%
Rubio 15%
Bush 11%
Kasich 9%
Carson 5%

That result would probably allow Bush and Kasich to hang on for a while- a good thing for Trump and Cruz, but a very bad thing for everybody else. In that case, Nevada on February 23 and even Super Tuesday on March 1 might be needed to eliminate Bush and Kasich.

As difficult a reality as this is for sensible Republicans (or Americans) to face, if by the morning of March 2 we still have more than one of Rubio, Bush and Kasich still in the race and not in the process of contemplating a relatively early withdrawal, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz will probably be the Republican nominee. If the former, rational Republicans will have to begin the process of deciding between running a center-right third party candidate, staying home on election day, or (shudder!) voting for Hillary Clinton or whoever the Democrats nominate. Some might actually vote for Trump. Probably more would hold their noses and vote for Trump than would hold their noses and vote for Hillary, but not enough more that Trump (thank God!) would have any real chance of being elected. As Lindsey Graham said of such a matchup, "Dishonest beats crazy."

If the later most (though by no means all) of the centrists would probably vote without enthusiasm for Cruz, whose supporters glory in his identity as the poster child of the very "principled" partisan obstructionism which has held the popularity of Congress under 20% it seems from time immemorial. Cruz, too, would go down to devastating defeat. You don't win by nominating a candidate who is not only the symbol of the very thing the voters are angry about but brags about it.

Although only by one point over Cruz, in South Carolina as elsewhere Rubio leads the candidates among voters' second choices.

That sounds to me like the results, with some variations, we're likely to see from any representative primary or caucus from here on out featuring the same candidates. The thing is, this may well be the last such primary or caucus. If this poll is accurate, Rubio will clearly have established himself (so to speak) as the centrist candidate the entire rational block of Republican voters will soon be rallying behind.

Bush might well withdraw after such a result although it's possible that he'll hang on until the Nevada caucuses three days later, where he figures to do no better. Kasich might hang on until Nevada too, but he doesn't figure to improve on those numbers either.

I have no idea why Ben Carson is still in the race even now.

If Bush and Kasich both have the common sense- and decency- to see the handwriting on the wall and drop out after Nevada- and there would be no rational reason for them to hang on- Marco Rubio will go into the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1 as the single candidate of Republican centrists. He will basically be able to compete from there on out on equal terms with Trump and Cruz. Trump will no longer seem inevitable, Cruz will no longer be the natural magnet for ideological conservatives, and people will be left to consider the last three serious candidates for the Republican nomination not as symbols or as conveyors of messages, but as potential presidents. And I don't see how any reasonable person could look at Trump, Cruz, and Rubio without seeing Rubio is the only one of the three whose occupancy of the White House would be anything other than frightening- and, in fact, the only one of the three with a ghost of a chance of winning in November.

If I'm right, Super Tuesday on March 1 will be the beginning of the real battle for the Republican nomination. The three candidates I expect to survive are closely clumped together in delegates right now; it would be an even battle on a level playing field from Super Tuesday until the convention.

And I expect Rubio to win it.

There are only two ways I can see him failing. The first would be another gaffe- for example, another bungled debate. That would be a disaster for the party and the country. Bush might serve as a rallying point for moderates if Rubio were to be the one to fall by the wayside. Kasich has unfortunately chosen to run far enough to the left of the field that he wouldn't be a viable alternative though he could hand the nomination to Trump or Cruz by staying in the race and taking votes away from Bush or Rubio. But neither would be as strong a contender in the final drive to the convention as Rubio would be and while Kasich might do well in November he could never seriously challenge for the nomination. Bush would have a slightly better shot at the nomination, but his last name and his demonstrably ineffective style as a candidate would badly handicap him against the Democrat.

The other- and more likely, unfortunately- would be for either Bush or Kasich to do what Ben Carson is doing now: to stick around, out of pride or loyalty to his supporters or for any other reason, past the point where his candidacy is viable and continue to drain votes away from Rubio while Trump and Cruz retain their present strength. That would be a heavy burden to bear before history, and I hope that neither of those good men would make that mistake.

In any case, hang on to your hats, people. More than usual rests on these next several weeks. They may well determine whether or not conservatives get one last chance to fix the Supreme Court before its radicalization becomes permanent and whether the country will have to suffer through the ravages of another four years of rule from the far left masquerading as the center.

Photo by DonkeyHotey

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