The smoke from the battlefields is finally beginning to clear and the GOP primary race is taking a discernible form.
What is clear, and we saw it at the recent South Carolina debate, is that there are now two primary races underway.
One pits Donald Trump against Ted Cruz for the base, grassroots vote of the party — let’s call it the “talk radio primary.”
But the second and equally important race decides the establishment candidate. It pits Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich against each other.
One strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns told me the fight in this “establishment primary” is nothing more than a “death struggle.”
Whoever survives this struggle will become the establishment candidate of the party, claiming conservatives and moderates not satisfied with Trump or Cruz — and also bringing with them the “money” — the party’s biggest financial donors.
The candidate best positioned to win this establishment primary, and the one with the greatest likelihood of winning against the Democrats in November, is Jeb Bush.
Recently, I chatted with my friend Lindsey Graham. I told him many people were surprised that the South Carolina senator quit the race and endorsed Jeb.
Most “insiders” were expecting Lindsey would back Marco Rubio.
But he didn’t. Instead, he picked Bush, who was lagging at the time behind Rubio in the polls.
Lindsey told me his decision was easy. Jeb was the only candidate who would be ready to be commander-in-chief on “day one.”
The world today is just too dangerous a place to risk anyone else, he said.
For sure, Rubio had appeared the likely “establishment winner” in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary.
With charisma, charm and conservative sensibilities, Rubio gained momentum as he made a strong third place finish in Iowa.
Rubio has performed extremely well in debates – until the last New Hampshire conclave when he wilted under fierce attacks from Chris Christie.
He has appeared heavily scripted in his debate responses.
Rubio has avoided the give-and-take of the campaign all other GOP candidates have engaged in — limiting press availability largely to friendly Fox News appearances, limiting questions at town halls and even his voter interactions with an extremely light campaign schedule.
If he can’t handle the press now, how will he fare during the intense scrutiny of a general election against Hillary?
Still, Rubio appeared gliding to the finish line until that debate in New Hampshire, when he just fell off a cliff.
All along, Republican voters have been looking at this primary as to who can be strong enough to take on Hillary later this year.
Trump has won high marks for that perception.
So far, Rubio has not passed the sniff test and after fumbling, it became clear he doesn’t have much to fall back on.
He doesn’t have any significant legislative or executive record in governing. His significant legislative achievement was joining the Gang of Eight to back Sen. Schumer’s amnesty bill.
His impressive network of financial supporters are mostly new and transient.
And he has no core constituency in the party. Even the Cuban-Americans in Miami are largely backing Jeb Bush.
Then there is Gov. Kasich, who has a good record in Ohio and did extremely well in New Hampshire. But he seems oddly out of step with the base of the Republican Party.
His network of financial supporters is small, and it is difficult to see how he finds a path to victory ahead.
Finally, there is Jeb Bush.
Bush has had his share of stumbles, but he has shown resiliency for several reasons.
First, he has had a powerful conservative record as governor in Florida. No candidate in the race comes close to Jeb’s record on taxes, spending, pro-life, pro-gun, state’s rights and other issues conservatives are about. It’s indisputable.
Second, he has a national organization ready to fund and sustain him though a primary with either Trump or Cruz, and later through a fierce general election campaign against Hillary.
Third, while appearing rusty in early debates, Bush has risen to the occasion, having given a strong performance in Charleston.
He is not the generational change candidate, he is not the charisma candidate, but he is the solutions candidate.
Bush has also taken on Trump -- clearly a tactical move. In a sense, he grabbed the “anti-Trump” mantle, which Kasich and Rubio fear to do.
Bush has been at the receiving end of Trump’s thunder.
Trump sees Bush as his biggest threat and hopes to eliminate him early. There is little doubt Trump will easily crush Rubio or Kasich – if either were to become the remaining challenger.
So far, Jeb Bush has outperformed. The pundits said he would be an asterisk in New Hampshire. But he came in a solid fourth place, ahead of Rubio.
If he comes in second or third in South Carolina, he will be positioned as the leading establishment candidate through Super Tuesday.
After that, he will have an even stronger hand in primary states ahead like Florida, California, New York, Illinois, to name a few.
And, if day one of a Jeb Bush presidency happens, the country will be in very good hands.
Posts by Christopher Ruddy
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