Rubio rises, Bush and Trump plateau

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The race for the Republican presidential nomination is not turning out as the mainstream media predicted.

Six short months ago, the press had all but anointed former Florida governor Jeb Bush as the GOP’s 2016 nominee. Last summer, when enthusiasm for Bush turned out to be lower than anticipated, the media changed their story-line: real estate mogul Donald Trump, they proclaimed, would lead an insurgent revolt all the way to the nomination.

And yet, today, Bush’s inevitability and Trump’s mass popularity are squarely in question.

Bush, whose campaign has so far failed to catch fire, came into last night’s third Republican debate badly in need of a spark. But if he hoped to light one by attacking Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla) for missing Senate votes while on the campaign trail, the attempt backfired.

Rubio pointed out that Bush never had any problem with John McCain missing votes during the 2008 campaign and then skillfully made his former political mentor’s attack on him seem like an act of desperation.

“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said. “But I’m not running against Jeb Bush or anyone else on this stage. I’m running for president because there’s no way we can elect Hillary Clinton.”

On Saturday, speaking at a town-hall forum in South Carolina, Bush complained bitterly about the campaign thus far. “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, be miserable listening to people demonize me,” Bush snapped.

These episodes are, perhaps, Bush’s response to criticism that his campaign persona has seemed dull. But the Bush that has emerged over the last week, although certainly more energetic, also appears querulous and unattractively impatient.

Revealingly, Bush’s only other animated campaign moments have come, not when talking about public policy, but when speaking of his wife, whom he felt compelled to defend from attacks by Trump. (Columba Bush is from Mexico).

Bush’s love for Columba, whom he met while studying abroad as a high school student, is sweet. But his overall campaign demeanor has left many wondering if George W’s little brother really has his heart in this race.

As for Trump, he appears to have peaked too soon. We never believed that Trump had the potential to capture anything beyond the “angry” segment of the electorate. And although his momentum has not fizzled quite as quickly as we expected, it is clearly tapering off – with the other “outsider” candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, now ahead of Trump in Iowa and at least one national poll.

Carson may be a flash-in-the-pan, but it is also possible that he has gained popularity because he is the anti-Trump outsider – a softer-spoken, more cerebral critic of the establishment than the brash, bombastic billionaire/reality-television star. Another, complementary, theory is that Carson has benefited from the departure from the race of Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

As even more Republicans step aside (we expect George Pataki, James Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee to follow soon), their supporters will migrate to the remaining candidates, changing the dynamics of the race significantly.

Many evangelical Christian supporters of Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and radio talk-show host, are likely to shift to Carson (a Seventh Day Adventist) or Texas Senator Ted Cruz (who has long cultivated the religious right).

But the candidates who have the most to gain from the inevitable narrowing of the field are Rubio, business woman Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich – strong conservatives who, nevertheless, appeal to diverse constituencies within the party and do not fit neatly into the media’s prefabricated narratives.

Last night’s debates may not shift the focus immediately, but in the months ahead look for Rubio, Fiorina, Christie, and Kasich to gather steam, while Bush (the establishment candidate) and Trump (the most vocally anti-establishment candidate) continue to plateau. This might not be the way that the media wants things to play out, but it is more than likely the way that a majority of Republican voters wants them to.

Read past NewBostonPost Editorials here.