Michael Barone: GOP race heats up while Clinton falters

Michael Barone

Michael Barone

The race for president is accelerating in high gear, or, rather, the races for president — in the Republican and Democratic parties, in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and primaries and caucuses to come. How’s it going? Let’s look at these separate races.

The Iowa Republican caucuses: The polls show a two-way race here between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, with little room for an outsider to crash through to victory as Mike Huckabee did in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. Each of the poll leaders has recently lobbed a cheap-shot attack on the other, and each slapped the other down in last week’s Fox Business debate.

Trump’s coy hints that Cruz may not be a “natural-born citizen” may have rolled back Cruz’s Iowa surge, but Cruz knocked them down convincingly in the debate. But then Cruz slyly charged that Trump embodies, without specifying just how, “New York values,” and Trump responded by reminding everyone of how all Americans admired New Yorkers for their response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

It looks like a close contest between Cruz’s base of religious conservatives (57 percent of caucus-goers in 2012) and Trump’s base of non-college-graduates (who could substantially increase Republicans’ previous anemic caucus turnout). Far behind, running third in polls, is Marco Rubio. Rubio, perhaps responding to Rich Lowry’s observation in National Review that his sunny temperament is out-of-sync with Republican voters’ anger, angrily attacked Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie. Which has relevance for:

The New Hampshire Republican primary: In 1984, Gary Hart leveraged a 16 percent second place in Iowa to a win in New Hampshire. Rubio surely hopes a distant third in Iowa, which is likely if Ben Carson continues to sag, will do something like that for him in New Hampshire, where he is competing with three other candidates — Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich — for the state’s many moderate and/or secular voters.

Christie’s blunt style has been effective in numerous town-hall events there, and in the debate Rubio went after him on Common Core, gun control, the Sotomayor Supreme Court appointment and Planned Parenthood. Christie concentrated on sharp, even snide attacks on Barack Obama, hoping Republicans would forget his pre-election-week hug of the president in 2012, and came out strong on foreign policy. But his ridiculing of squabbling senators looks like a process argument that won’t sway votes.

Jeb Bush and John Kasich largely ignored their New Hampshire competitors. Bush went after Trump, with solid criticisms of his call for banning Muslims from the country. But did he show the sense of command voters seek in a president? Kasich was less frenetic than in past debates. Both candidates have records in office that deserve respect — but haven’t gotten much of that recently.

The national Republican race: Many observers think the race will come down to a choice of Rubio and Cruz, and the two went at it on two major issues. On immigration Cruz attacked Rubio for supporting the Gang of Eight “comprehensive” legislation and Rubio attacked Cruz for flip-flopping on specifics.

More enlightening was their intellectually serious argument over their significantly different tax plans. Expect much more of this if they achieve their goals in Iowa and New Hampshire, plus confrontations on their significant differences on foreign policy.

The Democratic race: January Republican polls look a lot like Republican polls in December. January Democratic polls look a lot different from those taken before the two-week holiday blackout period.

Before the break Hillary Clinton was leading Bernie Sanders by solid margins nationally and in Iowa, and they were tied in New Hampshire. In January Clinton’s national lead has been cut by two-thirds; she and Sanders are statistically tied in Iowa, and Sanders has a bigger lead in New Hampshire. Did Clinton fare poorly in extended family holiday dinner table debates?

Clinton has responded with none of the political and policy deftness Bill Clinton showed during most of his political career until he picked up his pardoning pen in the last hours of his presidency.

She continues to hammer Sanders on gun control, the one issue on which he’s to her right, but has done nothing to restore her credibility. She has run ads suggesting Sanders would cut off all government health care — not an intellectually or politically sustainable argument.

Clinton can still win even if she loses Iowa and New Hampshire. But she doesn’t look like a strong nominee.

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