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The state of the GOP race: Trump, Cruz, and a 4-way battle for the establishment

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The year is winding down with a nightmare scenario for Republican Party elites: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, two candidates they believe to be highly likely to lose the general election, are in first and second.

But then there's something of a four-way tie that — if broken — could shake up the race. This is the contest between Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — four candidates who are polling within a few points of each other (and Ted Cruz) in New Hampshire.

Each of the four has deeper ties to the GOP ruling class than Trump or Cruz. But none has managed to break away from the pack, and they currently seem to be splitting the establishment-friendly vote in the crucial Granite State contest.

Cruz is positively gleeful about this chaos. "The moderate lane is unbelievably crowded," he told donors a few weeks ago in a conversation recorded and given to the New York Times. "Jeb Bush is now beset from one side by Chris Christie and John Kasich, and from the other side by Rubio and Carly [Fiorina]. And the five of them have millions of dollars, they're gonna rip each other apart."

It looks like Fiorina has fallen out of contention since then, but Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich are all still pulling 7 to 12 points each in New Hampshire, so it looks like they're heading for a showdown there. And even if Trump wins the state, if one of these four clearly rises above the other three, it could do a whole lot to clarify — or shake up — the state of the race.

So here's a rundown of the party-acceptable contenders who still look like they have at least some shot at being the last one standing who will take on Cruz and/or Trump.

Marco Rubio: He seems the strongest, but his path is tough to envision

"Which early state will I win?"

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On paper, Rubio still seems like the most appealing and most formidable candidate the GOP could nominate to face the Democrats in 2016. Republican voters view him very favorably overall. His number of endorsements from elected officials, while low overall, is still higher than any other candidate except Bush. And he has closer ties to conservatives, and therefore potentially broader appeal to the GOP electorate as a whole, than Bush, Kasich, or Christie.

Yet Rubio's conspicuous lack of success in the polls, the seeming reluctance of party elites to fall behind him, and his relaxed approach to campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire have fed doubts about whether he'll actually pull it off. Traditionally, presidential nominees manage to win one of those first two early states, and it's unclear whether Rubio can. (Nate Cohn tries to construct an alternate path for him here, but a lot has to go right, and the historical precedents are not encouraging.)

Now, I don't think Rubio necessarily needs to win an early state. But New Hampshire could be very dangerous state for him. If Christie, Kasich, or Bush wins or even puts up a surprisingly strong second-place showing, it would lead to a boom in media coverage. And without something Rubio can point to as an early "win," he risks becoming a Rudy Giuliani–like afterthought to the media and to voters in the next states.

Chris Christie: The New Hampshire comeback kid?

"I know you've written me off. But I've got the momentum in New Hampshire!"
Scott Olson / Getty

Somewhat surprisingly, Chris Christie is having a mini resurgence of sorts in New Hampshire, where he now regularly polls in the double digits and recently won the endorsement of the Union Leader newspaper. Christie's using the "John McCain 2007-'08" — he's working the state hard, holding town hall after town hall and making a serious effort to cultivate local support. In other words, he's doing what Rubio isn't.

Of course, Christie is still well behind Trump in the Granite State. He doesn't seem to have much of a plan or campaign infrastructure for anything afterward, as Politico's Daniel Strauss recently reported. And the prosecutions of his former aides for the Bridgegate scandal are moving forward — and while Christie hasn't personally been implicated in anything, his aides' trial won't do much to help him look electable. Still, a Christie win or strong second in New Hampshire could severely hamper Rubio's attempts to portray himself as the main alternative to Trump and Cruz.

Jeb Bush: He needs a miracle

Scott Olson/Getty
"Umm ... I've got a lot of money?"
Scott Olson/Getty

Jeb Bush's campaign hasn't gotten much non-dismal news lately. His poll position has plummeted to the point where he could fail to make the primetime stage in the next debate, his unfavorable ratings among Republicans are terrible, and the tens of millions of dollars his operation is spending on ads doesn't seem to be doing anything at all to help.

It seems the only hope Bush has at this point of even maybe turning things around is to clearly best Rubio, Christie, and Kasich in New Hampshire. That's not unthinkable — he's only 4 points behind Rubio, who's polling the best of the three. But the trendlines for Bush in the state do not look good, and Christie's uptick in recent polls is a serious threat to his candidacy.

John Kasich: The real chaos candidate

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
"Conservative activists hate me even more than they hate Jeb!"
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

Kasich is another guy who looks fantastic to many on paper — a really popular two-term governor of a swing state! — but has utterly failed to impress on the campaign trail. Part of it is probably due to his Jon Huntsman–esque strategy of insulting conservatives, while part is due to his personal lack of charisma. Still, he regularly does better in New Hampshire polls than he does nationally and is still within a few points of all the other establishment contenders, so it's not yet time to completely write him off.

Yet a Kasich New Hampshire victory (or strong second) would throw the race into even more chaos. Because unlike Christie, Rubio, and Bush, Kasich has actually moderated on economic issues — he infuriated conservatives by supporting Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. (Not only did he support it, he went all out to ram it through despite his legislature's objections.) So a Kasich surge could split the party by driving many economic conservatives away into the arms of someone else — say, Ted Cruz.

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