Last week’s CNN debate stirred the pot in what has been a roller coaster of an early primary season. A post-debate CNN poll showed Carly Fiorina surging into second place behind Donald Trump (a 12% jump since early September,) followed closely by Ben Carson. Right now, it’s an outsider’s race—but how long can it last?

The tendency to wax and wane has been a hallmark of the GOP’s “outsider” candidates. Their bumps and slides have had less to do with their budding policy plans, and more to do with how they’ve handled themselves under the extreme pressure of the national spotlight. Trump (for all his faults and foibles,) Fiorina, and Carson have all found their niche in the conversation, and if that was all it takes to become president, we could vote tomorrow and eliminate the primary state middlemen.

Alas.

As time wears on, primary voters (who are on the whole completely different animals compared to general election voters) will increasingly demand more and more substance from these candidates, and some pundits cite this as the reason the “outsiders” will become supplanted by more politically experienced candidates.

Erick Erickson has an interesting piece today laying out the case for a final showdown between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Neither are “outsiders,” but both conform to the idea that we need a “fresh face” at the forefront of conservative politics.

Here’s his analysis:

If we look at traditional campaign data, which under the smoke and veneer of Campaign 2016 still matters, what we will find is that Ted Cruz is laying down a hell of a ground game and has tons of cash with not nearly the burn rate that even Jeb Bush has. Cruz stands to profit the most from the collapse of Carson, Fiorina, and Trump — all of whom are playing on the outsider advantages right now. Those advantages will start to go away as more traditional and necessary campaign tactics and strategies kick in like, for example, ballot access.

Cruz can get himself on ballots and get signatures collected. He can make a play through the SEC primary better than many of the other candidates can. He captures the conservative outsider angst while also being a more credible candidate long term than any of the other outsiders. Cruz has, after all, won an election and has a professional campaign team.

While conservatives will gravitate rapidly to Cruz, the more establishment oriented people who recognize the party still needs a fresh face and chage will likely go to Marco Rubio. Already I’m hearing that both Walker and Bush donors are looking at Rubio as their next pick. Rubio has the highest positives of any of the candidates and is, in fact, the one Republican that the Democrats desperately fear because of his perceived ability to attract women, young voters, and Hispanics.

Likewise, Rubio has an experienced team that will be able to navigate ballot access laws, has consistently high polling in a volatile (and inaccurate) polling year, and did I mention just how positively people view him. Rubio also is running a tighter campaign with a slower burn rate than some of the others.

It’s an interesting analysis of a split that has already shown itself in discussions amongst conservatives who are desperately seeking Not Another Romney©. The same CNN poll cited above has Marco Rubio at 11% and Ted Cruz at 6%, which puts them behind the front-runners but nowhere near the troubled territory that Jindal and Walker have found themselves in. I think Erick is right, here; if you consider the field as it stands, and look at who can lay claim to both shining media moments and the capacity to both understand and relay complex policy points, it follows that Cruz and Rubio should land on top.

I disagree with Erick’s use of the word “establishment” in connection with Rubio’s future prospects, only because it implies that Rubio is empirically less conservative than Cruz. Rubio will appeal to more “establishment” sources of funding and promotion not because he has morphed into the fresh face of moderate Republicanism, but because his tactics embrace a more innovative philosophy that reaches beyond the conservative base and into new communities and voting demographics. That being said, Cruz’s ability to reach and ignite the base is nearly unparalleled, which will serve as a boon once ground efforts truly kick off.

They both have the ability to inspire, and they both represent “something new” in terms of GOP presidential politics. It’s an interesting thought game: who would you choose? Give your preferred candidate a click in the poll below, then head to the comments for the inevitable debate!


The poll will close on Tuesday night at midnight, PST.

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