Trump train rolls, Rubio bushwhacked

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GOFFSTOWN, N.H. – The campaigns of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush formed an improbable alliance in the game of “Survivor” that is the second tier of the Republican nominating process.

And it worked. At least for Donald Trump.

Trump didn’t need any help to get to his dominant first-place finish in New Hampshire. Not only did he meet his expectations, he did so after a disappointing second place in Iowa.

Trump’s Iowa stumble seemingly convinced the members of the traditional wing of the Republican Party that the danger from his candidacy was fading. So relieved to see Trump knocked off his high-horse, the rest of the party immediately went back to ignoring him and kicking the stuffing out of each other.

But like the second-place Iowa finisher in 2012, Trump came back to the friendly confines of New Hampshire and made a powerful display of his strength. Trump and his team did everything he needed to show himself to be the true frontrunner in the race.

So dominant was Trump’s lead in New Hampshire that perhaps the other candidates could be excused for ignoring him in the state. But for the two thirds of the party in the state and in the nation that range from skeptical to genuinely alarmed by the possibility of nominating the populist billionaire, Tuesday’s election was about more than the Granite State’s 23 delegates.

Second-place finisher John Kasich, Christie and Bush had followed a time-honored tradition for more moderate Republicans without broad national support: Go to New Hampshire and wait for the chance to bushwhack the frontrunners as they came through.

It has never worked before. Long-shot candidates in 1964, 1996 and 2000 managed to grab upset wins here, but fizzled out thereafter. But it is an impossible temptation to resist.

This time, though, the bushwhackers didn’t have their sights set on the frontrunner or even the second-place candidate, but rather an emerging third-place candidate picking up steam out of a surprising finish in Iowa.

Marco Rubio doesn’t have any more right to the Republican nomination or even a third-place slot than anyone else. In fact, given his relative youth and status as a freshman senator, he probably has less of a right than others. But what he did, and maybe still does have, is a chance to beat Trump and Iowa winner Ted Cruz and, perhaps, likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

While Kasich was legitimately focused on an upset win, Bush and Christie had lower aims for their New Hampshire campout, simply to stop Rubio. As the NYT reported, their campaigns worked together to apply maximum damage to Rubio here.

It worked.

Knocked by multiple attacks, Rubio had his first major debate slip up on Saturday and delivered to his antagonists and an eager press the narrative they had been waiting for: the GOP’s rising star was rising no more.

The slip was Rubio’s fault since he knew the attacks were coming, and even the topic on which the salvos would be launched. But what makes the moment really remarkable was that Christie, who was already out of the running in New Hampshire, attacked with the kind of ferocity that would surely blow back on him.

It appears that Christie sacrificed his candidacy not to stop Trump, or even challenge Cruz, but to blow up the guy in third place.

What resulted was what amounted to a three-way tie muddle for third place and a painful slowdown for Rubio. And that was the perfect outcome for Trump. Like polls for the past six months, he stood alone at the top with the rest of the field locked in a squalid squabbling.

What happens in South Carolina 10 days hence is anybody’s guess, but the strong indication is that the GOP field remains too big and too bitterly divided to stop the candidate who many in the party claim poses an existential threat.

It could hardly have been a better night for Trump, and he can thank Bush and Christie for putting the cherry on top of his sundae.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.