According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, the two most popular and broadly acceptable candidates in the field are perhaps the most talented and most reliably conservative. Oh, and by the way, they are Hispanics in their 40s.
Donald Trump is still leading the polls and has demonstrated a staying power that has confounded his critics, but Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are now beginning to stand out in the rest of the field, clustering with Ben Carson in effectively a three-way tie for second place nationally.
According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Rubio and Cruz have the highest net favorable ratings in the race at 58 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Only 5 percent of Republicans say they wouldn’t consider voting for Rubio, and 6 percent say that of Cruz, the lowest numbers in the field (Trump and Jeb Bush are unacceptable to the most Republicans, at 26 percent and 21 percent, respectively).
Unlike with Trump or Carson, explaining the emergence of Rubio and Cruz doesn’t require figuring out why the laws of political gravity have been suspended or psychoanalyzing GOP voters. They are advancing in a completely typical track.
They both have thought about running for president for a very long time. They both paid their dues — Cruz in the George W. Bush campaign and administration; Rubio in the Florida House. They both serve in a body, the U.S. Senate, that practically exists as a steppingstone to the White House. They both look, talk and act like politicians — because they are politicians, and good ones.
If the race eventually winnows down to a Rubio-Cruz fight, it will feature supremely skilled campaigners who are eloquent and sure-footed and represent the best next-generation politicians the party has to offer. A Cruz-Rubio race would play as grass roots vs. the establishment, although Rubio in the establishment slot would be an enormous victory for the tea party, which over the years has backed some flagrantly unsuitable candidates.
There is no doubt that the two are now positioned differently. From the beginning of his Senate career, Cruz has focused on bonding with the grass roots of the party, while Rubio sponsored a misbegotten immigration bill that hasn’t been forgotten or forgiven by conservatives. Cruz is working from the right of the party out (he’s strongest among self-identified very conservative voters), and Rubio is working from the center of the party out (he’s strongest among self-identified somewhat conservatives).
There are doubts about both of them. Is Cruz electable? Can Rubio be trusted on immigration? Does Cruz lack a winning personal touch? Is Rubio too youthful-looking? And Donald Trump can’t be wished away.
If Trump wins Iowa, it will indeed be like the First Bull Run of the Republican civil war. Regardless, the race is still highly unpredictable, and the last couple of weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire always bring surprises.
But Republicans hyperventilating over Trump should pause long enough to appreciate the steady rise of two conservative 40-somethings who represent the party’s future.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2015 by King Features Synd., Inc.