Finley: Looking for Third Man in GOP race

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Four years ago the Republican presidential primary contest arrived in Michigan seeking clarity and offering voters a choice between two distinct candidates.

Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite, in his native state only narrowly defeated social conservative Rick Santorum. Voters were engaged and passionate, and it was a turning point in a nominating race Romney went on to win.

This year, the GOP primary battle may again look to Michigan for definition. But by the time the state votes on March 8, the choices may be down to Wacky and Wackier.

Donald Trump stomped to victory in New Hampshire, a state that was supposed to bolster mainstream candidates. He more than doubled up second place finisher John Kasich, even beating the Ohio governor among moderate Republicans.

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz, the darling of the tea party and religious right, did well enough in third place to bridge him to the upcoming southern primaries, which will be dominated by evangelical voters.

This is a race in hunt of a Third Man, one who can appeal not only across the Republican spectrum but also to general election voters. But who?

Coming out of Iowa, a surging Marco Rubio caught the attention of some big donors who have been sitting on their wallets waiting for a strong alternative to emerge. But Rubio was a victim of Chris Christie’s murder-suicide during Saturday’s debate.

The New Jersey governor strutted around New Hampshire all week like Little Jack Horner, bragging of how he demolished Rubio, but had to go home after a distant and disappointing finish to think about his own future. He decided he doesn’t have one.

Kasich scored a win Tuesday, if getting beat by a 2-1 margin can ever be considered winning. Having put all his bets on New Hampshire, he heads to South Carolina with little money and not much organization. He has a solid state team here and a Michigan strategy, but getting here won’t be easy.

And then there’s Jeb Bush. Bush might be the best funded bad candidate in presidential primary history. He spent more than 10 times what Trump did in New Hampshire to claim just 11 percent of the vote and a fourth-place finish. And his campaign celebrated.

He has the money and delusions to keep slogging on. And who knows? He could be the last establishment man standing heading into the GOP convention. Or his self-described “scorched-earth” strategy against Rubio and Cruz in South Carolina could backfire the same way it did on Christie in New Hampshire.

And even attrition may not help much. Carly Fiorina is out, as is Christie, and Ben Carson has to be the next to come to the reality that he isn’t going to be president. But that’s not a whole lot of votes to divvy up.

Right now, it looks as if this campaign could again come to Michigan next month the way it did in 2012 — as a two-man contest in search of a decisive vote.

This time, though, Michigan Republicans likely won’t be choosing between pragmatism and principle, but rather between the narrow conservatism of Ted Cruz and the narrow-minded populism of Donald Trump. If that’s the choice, it will leave a lot of GOP voters on the sidelines.

Democrats: The primary environment differs in Michigan this time on the Democratic side as well. With Barack Obama running for re-election, the party’s primary was meaningless, so Democrats were free to make mischief on the Republican ballot.

This time, Bernie Sanders’ thumping of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and his strong funding makes it likely Michigan Democrats will have a competitive race.

Nolan Finley’s new book, Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice, is available from Amazon, I-books and Barnes & Noble Nook.