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Grand Old Panic as Trump blows away the establishment

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As the results of the Republican primary in New Hampshire rolled in Tuesday night, two things became clear.

The first was that a plurality of voters — real Americans casting real ballots in a real primary contest — decided that they would rather have tinsel-haired Manhattan mogul Donald Trump as their nominee than any of seven other Republicans in the race. With 92 percent of precincts reporting, Trump was trouncing the rest of the field, with 35 percent of the vote; his closest rival, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, trailed by 19 percentage points.

Not long ago, this electoral outcome would have been considered about as likely as a victory by a 74-year-old Jewish socialist running on a platform of free college tuition.

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GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters Tuesday night at his campaign’s watch party at the Executive Court Banquet Facility in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The second thing that became clear Tuesday night is that a viable mainstream challenger to Trump and the insurgent Iowa caucus winner, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — that long-awaited white knight who could “consolidate establishment support” and save the party from self-immolation next fall — has not emerged yet, and may not emerge for some time.

If he or she emerges at all.

As the Republican primary contest continues, New Hampshire may come to be known as the place where the establishment’s chances of nominating one of its own went to die.

Heading into New Hampshire, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was supposed to be the establishment’s savior. He was young, polished and attractive. He was Latino. He was politically conservative but rhetorically moderate. And he had surprised everyone by nearly beating Trump in Iowa.

Then Rubio self-destructed in Saturday’s GOP debate, and New Hampshire’s notoriously late-deciding primary voters — two-thirds of whom told exit pollsters that the debate was an “important” factor in their decision — split their support among the various other establishment contenders.

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Republican candidate Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to supporters at his presidential primary night rally on Tuesday in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The only problem? It’s hard to see how any of the other establishment Republicans get past Trump and Cruz at this point.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who mauled Rubio in Saturday’s debate and hoped for a boost in New Hampshire as a result, isn’t even likely to try. As soon as it became clear that Christie would not finish in the top five Tuesday, despite spending more days in the Granite State, at 75, than any other candidate, the governor announced that he was heading home to “take a deep breath” and reassess his struggling campaign.

Meanwhile, even as Kasich, the man who finished second to Trump, celebrated at his victory party in Salon A of the Concord Courtyard Marriott, his advisers and supporters admitted that he faced significant challenges ahead.

“He has almost no money,” said Spencer Bachus, a former Republican congressman from Alabama who served for 16 years with Kasich. “The big money has gone to Bush, Trump is self-financed and Cruz has a lot of Texas money. John has been operating on a shoestring.”

(Bachus added that Kasich had a powerful record to run on, having added 400,000 jobs to Ohio’s economy in the wake of the Great Recession.)

One senior Kasich adviser acknowledged that a win in South Carolina, the next state to vote, could well be out of reach for the Ohio governor, but offered the following rationale for staying in the game there: “to keep the narrative alive and keep [Kasich’s] name in the headlines.”

A major question for the Kasich team is whether their candidate’s more inclusive approach to politics can gain traction with a GOP base that has veered sharply to the right and seems allergic to the very idea of compromise.

Kasich, who made his name as a congressional budget hawk in the 1980s, has said that he "was tea party before there was a tea party.” But his position on immigration, his conciliatory words on gay marriage and his decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act have opened him up to charges on the right that he is this cycle’s Jon Huntsman — the former Utah governor who also won about 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire before his campaign collapsed.

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Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich celebrates taking second place in Concord, N.H., Tuesday night. (Photo: Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

But that didn’t stop Kasich from celebrating his unlikely second-place showing Tuesday night. As the smell of Asian meatballs wafted through the packed ballroom, a series of campaign surrogates took to the stage to fire up the faithful. Among the loudest battle cries was: “Unite, don’t divide.” Just minutes before, unbeknownst to Kasich’s supporters, the Ohio governor had slipped into a side entrance of the building, shed his suit jacket and headed straight for the men’s room, accompanied by a single security guard.

After running a largely positive campaign, heavily inflected with his own emotive brand of compassionate conservatism and a pragmatic, non-ideological vision for America, Kasich continued to pitch himself as the GOP’s anti-Trump Tuesday night.

“We’re gonna solve the problems in America, not by being extreme, not by being first a Republican or Democrat, but by reminding everybody that we are Americans,” the governor told his supporters. “Tonight, the light overcame the darkness.”

At his victory party in Manchester, Jeb Bush, who was battling with Cruz and Rubio for third place, also announced that New Hampshire had resuscitated his bid for the presidency.

“This campaign is not dead,” Bush said. “We’re going on to South Carolina.”

“The pundits had it all figured out last Monday night when the Iowa caucuses were complete,” he continued. “They said it was now a three-person race between two freshman senators and a reality-TV star. And while the reality-TV star is still doing well, it looks like you guys have reset the race.”

But as with Kasich, it was unclear Tuesday night exactly how Bush, who is currently mired at 4 percent in the national polls, will capitalize on the muddled results from New Hampshire.

Supporters at Bush’s rally worried — and rightly so — that the lack of mainstream consensus would only make life easier for Trump and Cruz.

SLIDESHOW – New Hampshire results are in >>>

“You look at those numbers, and you say somebody’s got to drop out,” said Allen Hubsch, a 52-year-old real estate attorney from Los Angeles who flew to New Hampshire to watch the primary process up close. “The non-Trump wing has got to consolidate. It’s more important that Trump not win than it is that any particular candidate win.”

Bush’s aides insisted Tuesday night that such consolidation could wait, and that the primary process should go on for several weeks, at least until the winner-take-all contests begin in mid-March. (Before then, each state will award delegates proportionally, based on the percentage of the popular vote each candidate receives.)

Their goal, of course, is to sap Rubio’s strength — and to convince mainstream Republicans to coalesce around Bush instead. New Hampshire helped with the first part of the equation.

For months, the mantra of the Rubio campaign was 3-2-1: third place in Iowa, second place in New Hampshire, first place in South Carolina. But on Tuesday, Rubio’s trajectory was turned upside down, and he was left staring into the abyss of a possible fifth-place finish.

“Our disappointment tonight is not on you,” Rubio told his supporters. “It’s on me. It’s on me.”

For 72 hours, Rubio had been insisting that he did fine in the debate and that he had meant to repeat — four times in a few minutes — the same line about Barack Obama knowing “exactly what he is doing” and wanting to “change America.”

But on Tuesday Rubio finally acknowledged the obvious.

“I did not do well on Saturday night,” he said. “So let me tell you this: That will never happen again.”

Still, many Rubio fans were unconvinced. “It’s all downhill from here,” said Alex Veras, a military veteran who had traveled up from Haverhill, Mass., to knock on doors for Rubio and was hoping to celebrate at the senator’s victory party in Manchester. Instead, Veras said, the “party” turned out to be a crowded ballroom filed with people staring silently at a TV screen.

“It was like a funeral scene,” added Veras.

The outlook for Rubio had all seemed so different a week ago. In his prep for the debate, Rubio was flawless, according to one senior adviser who participated in the sessions. “He was agile, fluent and ready to go,” insisted the adviser.

Then came Saturday night. “I don’t know what went wrong,” said the top Rubio adviser. By early this week, prospective new donors had suddenly stopped returning calls from Rubio’s advisers, who watched helplessly as their candidate faded in the polls.

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A man dressed as a robot stands outside a polling place as he waits for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio to arrive on voting day in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Rubio’s robotic debate performance mattered to residents like Tina Tedesco, an Italian immigrant and first-time voter from Huxnet, N.H., who had been torn between Rubio and Trump until she watched the debate.

“He kept saying the same thing,” she explained outside the Radisson Hotel, where a somber Rubio crowd had assembled to watch the returns.

“He seemed flustered and unsure of himself,” added her friend Patty Abrams.

In the end, both women pulled the lever for Trump.

“We’re sick of being politically correct,” said Tedesco.

After a disappointing loss in Iowa, Trump — who had criticized the idea of a ground game as late as last week, saying it was meaningless if a voter didn’t like a candidate’s “ideas”— tweaked his strategy ever so slightly in New Hampshire.

He added a small town hall and made several unpublicized stops at diners around the Granite State in addition to his regular schedule of big rallies. Aides declined to say if their boss would embrace smaller stops in future contests, but onstage Tuesday, Trump thanked his campaign manager and joked that “we learned a lot about ground games in one week.”

Trump’s victory puts him in a strong position to win South Carolina, where he currently has a 20-point lead over Cruz, his closest rival. Aides insisted Trump is also well-positioned heading into Super Tuesday, touting the massive rallies he has held in Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and other key GOP states.

But all of that seemed far off as Trump took the stage Tuesday night to the sound of the Beatles’ song “Revolution.”

“You say you want a revolution,” sang John Lennon. “We all want to change the world.”

But before Lennon could deliver the next line — “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out” — someone cut the song short, and Trump, his face flushed red, began to speak.

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