While the Mothra-vs-Godzilla deathmatch between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz ravages the landscape, more diminutive Republican candidacies are making quiet moves. Witness New Hampshire, where all of a sudden Ohio Gov. John Kasich is looking surprisingly vital. A handful of polls in the state show him edging into second or third place behind Trump and, maybe, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Kasich’s been an afterthought in the national sweepstakes, but the Granite State rewards the kind of committed retail campaign he’s waged there — and its voters tend to appreciate his gruff but moderate approach to governance. Validation of his breakthrough came this week, when Right to Rise, the super PAC backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, deemed him sufficiently threatening to merit an attack ad.
Trump maintains an intimidating lead in New Hampshire. The question is, if Kasich finishes a strong second, what then? Historically, the GOP primary there has served as a corrective for the kickoff caucuses in Iowa, where social conservatives have disproportionate sway. In the last six contested Republican presidential primaries, dating back to 1980, the two states haven’t picked the same candidate a single time. Over that period, only two Iowa winners went on to secure the nomination, while four New Hampshire victors clinched.
The peculiarities of this election make New Hampshire potentially more consequential than ever. Kasich, while nosing forward, nevertheless remains within a few points of the contest’s three other establishment favorites: Bush, Rubio, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The party’s business-minded old guard would vastly prefer any one of them to Trump or Cruz. But it’s doubtful more than two of that bunch will emerge from New Hampshire with enough momentum to continue. (Kasich has said he’ll drop out afterward if he doesn't perform well.) And the top finisher among them could slingshot into the next contest, in South Carolina, as the establishment’s Last Great Hope. Yet the Ohio governor so far lacks the resources and the ground game there to capitalize the way Rubio or Bush could.
Kasich’s resurgence in New Hampshire should remind panicked establishment types now trying to reconcile themselves either to Trump or Cruz that the race doesn’t end before it begins. But overcoming those two frontrunners will require the rest of the field to consolidate quickly. A second-place finish by Kasich in New Hampshire is as likely to complicate that task as advance it.