It is only a primary

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To paraphrase a classic horror movie tagline: “It is only a primary. It is only a primary.”

As the primaries move into the Northeast, remembering that simple phrase helps lower one’s blood pressure while maintaining equanimity in this raucous political season.

Primary campaigns make the bitterest of political enemies out of those closest on the political spectrum. At first blush, that seems incongruous.

Shouldn’t those most ideologically aligned unite behind a common goal?

No, not when each desperately wants to achieve victory. Until a winner is sorted out, primaries become a miniaturized Hobbesian political state of nature, “a war of all against all.”

To draw an imperfect analogy, as this football season nears its sour conclusion for New Englanders:  The NFL/political system is divided into two distinct conferences/political parties —  The AFC (Republicans) and the NFC (Democrats).  Each conference/political party will end up with one team facing off against the other’s team for the Super Bowl/presidential election.

At the start of each season, the home team aims to best the teams closest to it geographically. For example, the New England Patriots’ most consistent and bitter rivals are the New York Jets. Because of their proximity, the two teams play against each other twice each year, with each fighting to win the Eastern Division and move onto the championship round. Only after beating its near rival, can a team have any hope of moving toward the ultimate goal.

So it is in politics, where rivalries tend to be geographical, resume-driven, or (most often) ideological.

Faced with a pure geographical match-up, voters in the state of Florida must choose between two candidates, who have previously been embraced by the GOP faithful.

This rivalry also veers toward the personal. Former governor Jeb Bush was viewed as something of a political mentor to Marco Rubio when the younger man served in the Florida legislature, ultimately becoming its Speaker. Bush supporters are angry that Rubio, now a U.S. senator from Florida, did not wait his turn and defer to the senior Jeb’s candidacy.

Bush’s bitterness has become palpable. Now referred to in some quarters as Rubio’s “frienementor,” Bush attacks Rubio for missing senate votes and for backtracking on the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill. Created to push the Bush candidacy, the well-funded Right to Rise super PAC has emptied its fat wallet attacking Rubio, seen as most threatening to Bush.

Republican Floridians will ultimately vote for one or the other in primaries, before rallying around whoever wins. Until then, supporters for each might note: It is only a primary.

Texas senator Ted Cruz is also attacking Rubio. In other circumstances, they would support each other. The two men are virtually the same age and share similar political ideologies, as well as Cuban American heritage. Both men took on the Republican establishment in their home states in order to achieve their current positions. Both benefited enormously from Tea Party dissatisfaction with business-as-usual Republicans in Washington. Now they are tussling with each other over who will lead the party.

Because he tailored the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill to satisfy senate Democrats, Rubio made himself vulnerable to attacks on the toxic issue of amnesty. Meanwhile, Cruz has opposed the NSA meta-data collection program, which helps him with libertarians but opens him to criticism from neoconservatives. Hence we witness the spectacle of two men, who agree on almost all other issues, battling over the details of immigration and national security.

And like the Floridians, conservatives will vote for one man in primaries, before rallying around whoever wins. They too might note: It’s only a primary.

Former senator Rick Santorum and ex-governor Mike Huckabee, two strong social conservatives who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and 2008, respectively, both dropped out of the race for president this week, after finding their erstwhile Hawkeye state supporters had moved on to either Cruz or Rubio.

Frustrated at being relegated to the sideshow debate stage, the former caucus winners appeared at Donald Trump’s alternative veterans’ fundraiser, staged as a reality television counter-programming to the main Republican debate on January 28 in Iowa. The primary season certainly makes strange political bedfellows.  Clearly, Huckabee and Santorum have much more in common with Cruz and Rubio than with Trump.

That sums up the problem of the primary season. Those closest to you poach on your home turf; those furthest apart pose no immediate threat. Only later will the resentments heal. Santorum’s seemed to heal quickly – he endorsed Marco Rubio on Wednesday. As Santorum now realizes, it’s only a primary.

Donald Trump, of course, inhabits a political world of his own. But both he and Cruz have run campaigns aimed at voters who are sick and tired of the political establishment (or, as Cruz calls it “the Washington cartel”).  Early on the two men were friendly, attended rallies together, and praised each other publically.

As outsider candidates, they have much in common. But eventually they had to muscle each other for the anti-establishment title, fully aware that only one will be left standing.

Trump opened the question of whether Cruz qualifies as a natural born citizen; Cruz returned fire by spotlighting Trump’s previous liberal positions on everything from taxes to partial birth abortion.

Sometimes coming under attack works to a candidate’s advantage. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina gamely stood up to some ill-chosen words cast her way by Trump. Responding with toughness and resilience, Fiorina captured the attention of voters. She was duly rewarded with a significant bump in the polls. Seeing his words boomerang, Trump ceased tossing verbal darts. Without the Trumpian spotlight, Fiorina’s heightened status dissipated. Apparently two business success stories constitute one too many.

The single candidate who has avoided the rancor is Dr. Ben Carson. Perhaps his gentle, serious demeanor allows him to rise above it all. More likely, other candidates are convinced a skilled surgeon who has never run for office cannot possibly survive the grueling political process.

Among the so-called establishment candidates, New Hampshire looms as a potential “caged death match” from which only one emerges. Governors Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush are vying to wear the mantle of the reasonable consensus builder. The trio haven’t so much attacked each other as they have been flummoxed by a year that was supposed to be hospitable to effective gubernatorial experience. It has turned into something quite different.

The Democrat side is also experiencing something quite different than anticipated. Touted as the Hillary Clinton coronation tour, the race has lurched into an embarrassing early state struggle, as Vermont senator Bernie Sanders gives Clinton a run for her money. But, eventually, Clinton will no doubt be victorious – at which point the two rivals will kiss and make up. After all, it’s only a primary.

Just don’t expect the bitterness to abate anytime soon, especially among the bevy of Republicans.

As they drop out one-by-one, as Huckabee, Santorum, and Sen. Rand Paul did this week, candidates will have sufficient time to come to terms with their loss. Ultimately, they will unify behind the winner of the nomination, the party standard-bearer. Because Donald Trump hardly fits this definition of a politician, he remains the single figure who could disrupt this traditional outcome.

The small matters magnified so large during the primaries will evaporate before the yawning ideological gap separating the two parties. Plus, party politics follows a rule-book or script. Falling in line behind the winner is just the last act in the primary story-line. That’s how it works for any politician who wants to remain viable for a future contest.

It’s not that way with sports rivalries. No true Patriots’ fan will ever root for the Jets. That’s real, deep-seated hatred.

This is only a primary.

Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read his past columns here.