- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa | With two presidential candidates dropping out in the immediate aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, all eyes are on GOP stragglers Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and Ben Carson to see who will quit next.

Campaign veterans acknowledged that it is always difficult deciding to throw in the towel. But at some point it becomes the only honorable option, as Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Martin O’Malley realized after finishing the leadoff caucuses with less than 2 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively.

Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, joked with supporters that he was dropping out because of illness: “Voters are sick of me,” he said.

Several contenders in the crowded GOP field, including Mrs. Fiorina, a onetime corporate executive, and Mr. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who won the Iowa GOP contest in 2012, garnered less than 2 percent in Iowa and head into New Hampshire in the low single digits in the polls.

“If you are Fiorina or Santorum, it’s hard to justify continuing a campaign with any real credibility,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

Candidates should get the message if they are relegated to the early “undercard” stage for the GOP candidate’s debate Saturday in Manchester, New Hampshire, he said.

“Now we are voting, and you’re no longer on the same stage. That means something,” said Mr. Heye.

The campaigns for Mrs. Fiorina, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul did not respond to questions about their future plans or the rationale for continuing to run.

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who got zero votes in the Iowa caucuses and registered zero support in recent New Hampshire polls, nevertheless vowed to stay in and soldier on. In a statement, the Gilmore campaign stressed that the candidate didn’t campaign in Iowa and has focused his effort on New Hampshire’s upcoming Feb. 9 primary.

“I have chosen to make my stand in New Hampshire,” said Mr. Gilmore.

Mr. Paul placed fifth in Iowa but remained mired near the back of the pack in New Hampshire with 3 percent of the vote in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.

Mr. Carson finished fourth in Iowa with 9 percent of the vote but averages just 3 percent in New Hampshire polls. However, Mr. Carson has amassed a sizable war chest and is running in the middle of the pack in South Carolina, which holds its first-in-the-South primary at the end of the month.

GOP insiders increasingly view the race as a three-man contest between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, billionaire businessman Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who claimed the top three spots in the caucuses. And some are eager to see the field winnowed.

“Mike Huckabee is an example of a principled pragmatism that says, ‘I’ve fought as valiantly as I could, but I have to face the facts that this is not my time.’ And I think the other candidates seriously need to assess their candidacy,” a Republican operative said privately.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser on 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, said the party will give a candidate a pass for the first two contests, but pressure soon will mount on poor-performing candidates to get out of the way.

Not just stragglers, but some of the prominent establishment candidates bunched near the front of the pack in New Hampshire, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will feel the pressure to bow out.

The three governors have staked the fortune of their campaigns on New Hampshire, where they are competing with Mr. Rubio for the establishment lane in the nomination race.

“If they do poorly in Tuesday’s primary, then the voices are going to get very loud for them to step aside,” said Mr. Fehrnstrom. “It’s still a little early to be beating the drum for people to be getting out. I think those drumbeats will get louder after New Hampshire.”

The candid Mr. Kasich said that he wouldn’t have to be nudged out of the race if he loses badly in New Hampshire.

“If I get smoked here, I’m going home,” he told reporters on the campaign trial in New Hampshire.

Speculation about Mr. Carson dropping out of the race caused a furor during the Iowa caucus and prompted the retired neurosurgeon to angrily accuse the Cruz campaign of “dirty tricks.”

Scores of caucusgoers said late Monday that Cruz campaign workers were saying Mr. Carson was preparing to drop out, citing news reports of his scheduled return to his home in Florida after the Iowa contest. Mr. Cruz later issued an apology to Mr. Carson, calling the incident a “mistake.”

Deana Bass, national spokesman for the Carson campaign, said Mr. Carson would not be dropping out anytime soon.

“We are looking forward to New Hampshire and South Carolina. We’re looking forward to both primaries, both debates and sharing his message with all voters,” she said.

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