As we await the New Hampshire returns, here are my key questions:
1. Can Donald Trump show that he’s more than Pat Buchanan with a casino? In Iowa, Trump finished within one percent of Pat Buchanan’s percentage of the vote in 1996. Buchanan won New Hampshire with 27 percent of the vote. Trump will have to do substantially better to shed the growing suspicion that he’s merely putting a dash of celebrity glitz on top of an old Republican constituency. Is there anything truly new here? We’ll find out soon enough.
2. How many New Hampshire residents will waste their vote on John Kasich? If the story out of New Hampshire is a Kasich “surge,” get ready for the shortest surge in primary history. South Carolina awaits, with the SEC primary one week later. The GOP electorate is rightly in no mood to nominate a man who brands himself the “prince of light and hope,” brags to New Hampshire voters that he’s “had your hugs,” and raises the prospect of eternal damnation for people opposed to his Ohio Medicaid expansion. If the big story out of New Hampshire is Kasich, then New Hampshire isn’t a big story.
3. Are the pundits right about Rubio fade? It’s become an article of faith in the pundit class that Rubio seriously hurt himself in Saturday’s debate. Was his gaffe more like Rick Perry’s dreadful “oops” moment or more like Romney’s temporary setback after his dismal South Carolina debate? We’ll start to learn the answer tonight.
4. Could Ted Cruz be the night’s stealth victor? If Cruz can beat everyone not named Trump or Kasich, then he bolsters the case that he’s the true Trump-alternative, and he’ll roll into South Carolina with two good outcomes at his back and a favorable, evangelical-heavy electorate ahead.
5. Does Jeb Bush get new life? There are some indications of a Bush surge, and if he wins, he may start to recover much of the establishment support that he’s steadily shed since this summer. Remember, there was a time when he was the front-runner. Theoretically, he can win those voters back and shoulder his way into the thick of the race.
I, for one, will be happy to put the early, blue-state primaries in the rear-view mirror. Let’s see what the South has to say.