Saturday Morning Note: The Weekly View from Washington
We’re nearing the event horizon in the long, strange Republican presidential primary. In 23 days, the contest crosses the point of no return when Iowa voters finally gather to caucus. From there, the surviving candidates will scramble across the map in a dash for delegates, over half of which will be awarded in the following six weeks.
But for now, in the approach, things appear to be slowing down even while they’re in fact speeding up. The final weeks before presidential primaries are typically the most tumultuous, with whatever had passed for structure splintering as early-state voters begin to focus in earnest on the race. This year, not so much — or at least not yet. True, firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has pulled ahead in Iowa, but in the three other states voting in February, Donald Trump maintains leads akin to the national one he’s enjoyed since midsummer.
Trump’s continued dominance is exacerbating the sense of suspended animation bracing the field, because his position comes with a major unanswered question: Is it real? That is, after months of packing arenas, monopolizing coverage, and directing the terms of the national conversation from his phone and his Twitter account, can Trump actually get people to show up and cast ballots for him? Some of the brightest political minds addressed themselves to that question this week, and the net conclusion was a shoulder shrug. As one top operative for another candidate frankly summarizes the state of play, “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
In the early going, Trump’s performance can only begin to answer half the equation, as he battles Cruz for the outsider mantle. The rest of the viable bunch, those in the so-called establishment lane, face their first disqualifying round in New Hampshire, eight days after Iowa. There, likely only two of the four — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — will emerge as contenders. At the moment, they’re all snarled within a few points of each other in the state. It may be the relative stasis seizing the contest gives way to a different dynamic before the voting starts. Either way, it won’t be long now.