The New Hampshire presidential primary vote usually breaks late. This time, not unusually, it will break a few candidates.
Eight weeks before the Feb. 9 primary, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and probably Marco Rubio are in a wide- open contest to be the non-right wing, non-Donald Trump Republican contender. Two or three of them may be dead after the vote. Among Democrats, if Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, loses to Hillary Clinton in his neighboring state, he's probably toast. If he wins, the contest will go on for a while.
The earlier caucuses in Iowa -- in which Ted Cruz has surged ahead of Donald Trump in the polls -- could eliminate two or three of the right-wing also-rans. But on the mainstream conservative side, the task of culling falls to New Hampshire, which prides itself as the place that picks presidents. In the past 10 primaries, 15 of the 20 victors went on to win their party's nomination.
Voters can choose either party's primary in New Hampshire, and knowledgeable Republicans suggest that a heavy influx of independents could help push a mainstream conservative to the top spot. There is no movement yet, and it's possible that this vote could split rather evenly, with no candidate breaking out.
Each of the aspirants has a pathway and hurdles.
Former Florida Gov. Bush's supporters believe that his disappointing candidacy may finally be coming together.
"In the end, New Hampshire looks for someone who can win, is substantive, and can govern; Jeb is well positioned to start connecting," says Judd Gregg, a former U.S. senator from the state. But polls, some private ones even more than the public surveys, suggest no movement, even slippage, and other campaigns discount the onetime front-runner.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with his tough-guy persona, may be getting a boost after the terrorist attacks in Paris and California. He won the endorsement of the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's largest paper. But Christie has no national security experience, and in the current media landscape, the Union Leader doesn't carry the political clout it once did.
Kasich, the Ohio governor, has a first-class organization that is targeting independent female voters who may be attracted to the former congressman's relative moderation and extensive experience on economic and national security issues. He emphasizes his credentials, and his camp says his gubernatorial record on jobs and fiscal soundness far eclipses that of his rival, Christie.
But Kasich has been lackluster in the debates, and Gregg, though he admires the Ohio governor, doesn't believe that he can be a top contender.
Florida Sen. Rubio is an enigma. He's the most charismatic of this field, and polls show him gaining. But he has less of an organizational presence and may get caught in a squeeze as he tries to straddle right-wing and more mainstream views.
There are mixed opinions about whether Trump's considerable lead in the state will continue to erode. Kasich argues that voters ultimately "will want someone who can land the plane." And State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Christie supporter, sees his plain-speaking candidate as a beneficiary of slippage.
The Trump camp insists that this isn't happening. "A lot of people who had given up on politics are going to come out for Donald Trump and that's going to befuddle the establishment," says State Representative Stephen Stepanek, a supporter. Moreover, although Cruz's brand of conservatism has been dismissed in New Hampshire, a big Iowa win could give him momentum.
A deciding factor may be independents, who account for 40 percent of the state's electorate. If they vote heavily in the Republican contest, as some polls suggest, that could be a big boost for one of the mainstream contenders and a potential setback for Sanders's challenge to Hillary Clinton.
Whichever Republican wins or is a strong runner-up will be strengthened by the tests ahead, though with one sobering reminder. For all the talk about New Hampshire picking commanders-in-chief, the past five U.S. presidents lost their initial foray in the state.
-- Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.
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