Republican race even more of a brawl

Heading into New Hampshire, the race for the nomination of the once-genteel Republican Party seems to have entered a kind of Mad Max phase.

It is no surprise that Donald Trump is doing his best to create political mayhem. Trump was uncharacteristically subdued Monday night when he underperformed in Iowa, getting beaten by Ted Cruz and barely holding on to second place. But within 24 hours he was back in form, slashing and burning with abandon.

Trump seized on Ben Carson’s complaint that Cruz’s representatives at the Iowa caucuses had cheated, falsely leading Carson supporters to believe that their candidate was pulling out of the race; the message was that if they wanted their votes to count, they should cast them for Cruz. Trump thundered on Twitter that the “state of Iowa” should nullify the results and order a do-over — never mind that it is the Iowa Republican Party, not the state government, that runs the caucuses.

“Oh, that voter fraud, you know, these politicians are brutal,” Trump said at a rally. “They are a bunch of dishonest cookies, I want to tell you.”

Cruz accused his rival of throwing a “Trumper-tantrum” — Cruz’s wordplay is never quite as sparkling as he seems to think — and his campaign maintained it was guilty of nothing except the practice of big-league politics.

The dispute doesn’t amount to much, except in this one sense: Trump played it safe in the days before Iowa, even skipping a debate, but now he seems back to the hot-mess flamboyance that brought him this far. Polls show him with a 20-point lead in New Hampshire over all comers, according to the Real Clear Politics average. He needs to win big to remain the favorite for the nomination.

Cruz is riding high, of course, and can even dream of sneaking into second place in Tuesday’s primary. But New Hampshire is unfriendly turf for him. Besides being the place where Trump hopes to get his mojo back, it is the state where the lagging establishment candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich — have to do well. If they don’t, donors and endorsers may begin to coalesce around Marco Rubio, the only establishment hopeful who performed better in Iowa than the polls had predicted.

Indeed, such movement began Thursday when Rick Santorum, who didn’t survive Iowa, gave Rubio his endorsement. Unhappily, however, Santorum struggled mightily when pressed by “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough to name one thing Rubio has accomplished in the Senate. After much hemming and hawing, Santorum acknowledged that “there isn’t a whole lot” but protested that the question was unfair, since no one has accomplished much of anything in the Senate in recent years.

It is Christie, though, who has been sharpest — some would say “most vicious” — in attacking Rubio since the Iowa vote. Christie’s campaign is running out of money and time, and he seems to have decided to leave it all on the field in New Hampshire.

“This isn’t a student council election, everybody. This is an election for president of the United States,” Christie said Tuesday, in an attack aimed at Rubio. “Let’s get the boy out of the bubble, and let’s see if he’s ready to play next week in New Hampshire, I’m ready to play.”

The boy-in-the-bubble charge was only the beginning. Christie later said that Rubio “acts like the king of England,” called him “the master of the drive-by town hall,” accused him of being overly scripted and claimed he “just doesn’t have any experience.”

Bush is taking a more indirect approach. As we have seen in the debates, he is not exactly a master of the frontal assault. But he has been cheering Christie on, calling him “a great campaigner … a good friend … an effective governor.” And the Bush campaign bought a full-page ad in the Union Leader, New Hampshire’s biggest-circulation newspaper, in which eight leading Florida Republicans charged that Rubio “is not the best choice to serve as commander in chief.”

With all the slashing and bashing on the Republican side, the Democratic race in New Hampshire almost seems reduced to undercard status — unless, of course, there is a surprise.

If Bernie Sanders — from next-door Vermont — wins the primary handily, as polls predict, nothing much changes. He and Hillary Clinton seem likely to wage a long battle of attrition.

For Republicans, however, New Hampshire is political life or death. Ronald Reagan’s “Eleventh Commandment” — not speaking ill of a fellow Republican — is being honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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