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Trump's Commanding Lead Has Rest of GOP Field Fighting for 2nd in New Hampshire

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Allegra Boverman for NHPR
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With just a little more than a month to go before the New Hampshire primary, Republican Donald Trump continues to dominate the polls.

Now, as other GOP candidates aim their attacks at one another, it seems everyone else is now fighting for second.

James Pindell covers the New Hampshire Primary for the Boston Globe.

He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about his reporting on the issue.

What are we seeing from Republicans now that signals this could be a race for second?

I think we’ve known all along that Republicans have been quite confounded about what to do with Donald Trump. I think what we’re finding now as we head into the last five weeks of this primary is that these candidates are figuring out there’s nothing they can do about Trump. They’re almost conceding the fact that he will get first place in the New Hampshire primary. They’re trying to look at math, so right now, Donald Trump has 35 percent support. Anyone who’s attacked him has been hurt. But down the line, when it’s just a two-person contest, that means 65 percent of Republicans aren’t with Trump and maybe they’ll be with somebody else.

That’s why we’re seeing a lot of these attacks going on among the Republican candidates who are not Trump. You’re seeing Ted Cruz attack Marco Rubio. You’re seeing Rubio’s Super PAC attack Chris Christie. And then Chris Christie is attacking first-term senators like Cruz, Rubio, and Rand Paul. You’re seeing all these dynamics play out because they can attack each other for second, and they’ll deal with Trump later.

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Credit Allegra Boverman / NHPR
Donald Trump

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A CNN/WMUR poll last month that showed more than half of Republican voters said they were still trying to choose a candidate, so is there reason to believe a Trump victory  maybe isn’t a lock?

That’s right, it’s not a lock. It is the most logical thing to happen right now. He’s been leading for nearly 30 straight polls. That’s over the course of roughly 140 days, or a half year. But there is a lot of politics left to happen over the next five weeks. I think there’s a lot depending on what happens in Iowa. If Ted Cruz wins there, does Donald Trump get second or third? What’s his margin of support there and margin of loss? I think that has a lot to do with what’s going to happen in New Hampshire and particularly where independent voters go.

So is the strategy to push off a fight with Trump until the field is narrowed two or three months from now?

Right, so you have one threat ahead of you, particularly if you’re one of these so-called establishment-lane Republicans: Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich. The problem right now is collectively, they’re all pretty strong candidates, but they’re splitting the pie so many different ways. If they can get one person to fall or two people to fall and they’re the ones left standing in that scramble and be sitting pretty, that’s their most immediate concern right now. They’ll have to deal with Trump later.  

But that’s a strategy seems like it could backfire, if Trump only gets stronger?

Absolutely. The whole risk of this is that while they’re fighting amongst themselves for second and third and fourth and Donald Trump is aiming his fire at the Clintons and keeps winning, if his margin of victory is so big, it’s insurmountable. All you have to do is look at Mitt Romney last time. Yes, he lost Iowa and he lost South Carolina, but he was such a strong frontrunner that even though technically Rick Santorum was in second place, he was an afterthought. By playing for second, you’re hoping you’re still in the game by the time you get to this mono e mono contest with Donald Trump and that they aren’t an afterthought.

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Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR
Chris Christie

Are there Republicans candidates for whom a second-place finish in New Hampshire is critical?

Absolutely. There are so many candidates who have a lot riding on New Hampshire. Rubio, Christie, Kasich, Bush. They have to do well. Rand Paul has to well, too. There are so many candidates who don’t have an obvious place where they get an early victory. And after New Hampshire, this race becomes national pretty quickly. Super Tuesday comes three weeks after New Hampshire. Without an early win, it’s hard to see how they have the money or the momentum to compete at that kind of level. 

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