The Republican presidential field has room for three contenders for the nomination, but it can accommodate only one candidate from Florida.
Thus, New Hampshire's primary results have made the upcoming primary in South Carolina a showdown between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — with no guarantee that either campaign survives.
Rubio finished a strong third in the Iowa caucuses, giving him a leg up on claiming the mantle of the "establishment" candidate to compete with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. That momentum promptly propelled the Florida senator into a face-plant during the Feb. 6 debate. In response to a taunt from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that he was the master of the "memorized 25-second speech," Rubio proceeded to repeat, almost verbatim, the same snippet of rhetoric that invited the criticism in the first place.
"There it is," Christie said, jabbing his finger at Rubio. "There it is, everybody."
After entering New Hampshire hoping for a second-place finish, Rubio came in fifth, trailing even Bush, his main rival for the ideological slot in the race alongside Trump (who won New Hampshire easily) and Cruz (who finished third).
Rubio's inability to separate himself from Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich has prolonged that contest, meaning those three will continue attacking each other instead of training their fire on Trump, clearly the front-runner for the nomination. It also allows Cruz to focus on Trump, further solidifying his position as No. 2.
Kasich, however, lacks the fundraising acumen of his rivals, and he's a poor fit politically in the upcoming Southern primaries. That leaves Bush and Rubio fighting over many of the same voters. The senator's stumble in New Hampshire created an opening for many voters to give Bush a second look.
Trump and Cruz have solidified their positions with wins in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively. Lethargic third-place finishes can be spun as moral victories only for so long. At some point, you have to win a contest, not only to prove you can hang with the leaders, but also to keep pace in accumulating delegates.
Bush's path hasn't gotten any easier, and Rubio's has suddenly become harder. They converge on South Carolina like two stock cars swapping paint, their jockeying for position threatening to knock both into the wall.
REPRINTED FROM THE NORTHWEST FLORIDA DAILY NEWS
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore