POLITICS

New Hampshire Was A Very Good Night For Ted Cruz

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MANCHESTER, N.H -- If Marco Rubio won the Iowa caucus by finishing third last week, Ted Cruz just won New Hampshire.

Cruz (R-Texas), the actual winner of the Iowa Republican caucus, finished third in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, behind life-sized Chucky impersonator Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. In other words, he lost.

But don't count Cruz out quite yet. Just two of the 48 states have voted, and Cruz has the money -- and the polling numbers --  to stay in the GOP race and, potentially, win it.

Cruz, a methodical politician, plotted a course to the nomination months if not years ago, with a strategy to stay in contention long enough to make it a one-on-one race with an establishment-backed candidate.

Along the way, he has amassed tremendous resources. Super PACs that back Cruz have raised more than $42 million; his campaign has raised more money -- $47 million -- than any other Republican, save Ben Carson, who spent much of it on fundraising expenses. And he has the most cash on hand for the stretch run -- $18.4 million as of Feb. 1 -- despite already spending $28.4 million.

In New Hampshire, Cruz spent little of that money, with rival Rubio (R-Fla.) throwing nearly 30 times what Cruz did at the state.

Nationwide, GOP voters overwhelmingly like Cruz, and consider him one of the only candidates with a realistic chance at winning. Just 15 percent of Republican voters say they would definitely not support him, placing him behind Rubio or Kasich as a consensus candidate, but leaving him far more acceptable than either Jeb Bush or Trump.

Trump, though, is a hitch in Cruz' plan. While the establishment has warmed to him, Trump's far from an establishment candidate, throwing off the Cruz plan to be the most conservative candidate remaining in the race. His plan to wait for Trump's inevitable collapse is being thwarted by Trump's refusal to collapse. And his plan to challenge an establishment candidate in a final showdown has been stunted by the establishment's refusal to find a candidate to back. Rubio, who looked on his way to that spot, face-planted in New Hampshire. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who surged to second in New Hampshire, has barely any money and minimal support in the south. And Jeb! Bush can't get out of the single digits.

Cruz' vociferous appeals to religiosity, useless in the nation's least religious state, is likely to give him an edge in heavily evangelical states, many of which are front-loaded in the primary calendar. His campaign has long viewed the March 1 "SEC primary," a collection of religiously conservative Southern states, as especially fertile ground, with Cruz expected to rack up a number of Texas’ 155 delegates. (Texas is not a winner-take-all state.)

But as The New York Times' Nate Cohn points out, Cruz' win in Iowa offers some real warning signs for his candidacy. Cruz's victory rested primarily on the strength of voters who described themselves as "very conservative" -- a group that makes up a large swath of caucus-goers in Iowa and Nevada, but a far smaller bloc in most other states.

Cruz’ rise may also be part of Rubio’s fall. A number of New Hampshire voters at a Cruz event on Monday told HuffPost that they were choosing between Cruz and Rubio -- and Rubio’s exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the GOP debate over the weekend had done him no favors.

“He doesn’t really have much of a good rebuttal,” Jake Hochschwender of Newfields said of Rubio. “Sometimes he just kind of seems like a deer in the headlights.”

Hochschwender was previously leaning toward Rubio, but Rubio’s recent struggles to break from his talking points highlighted his inexperience, Hochswender said.

Another voter, Dan Irish of Hookset, reported that, while Rubio’s debate performance hadn’t cost him his vote, it did open the door for Cruz to win it. “I was leaning toward Rubio before the debate,” Irish said.

Irish said he was looking for two things from a candidate: conservatism and the ability to beat Hillary Clinton. And Rubio’s flub seemed to have exposed his vulnerabilities. “That was a bad moment for Rubio when he kept bringing up the issues with Obama,” Irish said.

If you believe voter anecdotes, there was a real chance for Rubio to steal from the likes of Kasich and the rest of the field. And Rubio missed his shot.

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