A funny thing is happening on the way to the GOP meltdown.
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 is at 66 percent to 8 percent favorable/unfavorable, while Cruz is at 65 percent to 9 percent, for the highest net favorable ratings in the race, 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 has Rubio and Cruz among the finalists, or 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 the grass roots vs. the establishment, although Rubio in the establishment slot would be an enormous victory for the tea party.
In this scenario, the so-called establishment candidate would be the guy who ran for Senate in Florida in 2010 against a sitting Republican governor and the firm backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. As far as RINO-hunting goes, by stopping Charlie Crist and chasing him out of the party, Rubio still has the best and most consequential hide.
And in a Cruz-Rubio scenario, the grass-roots candidate would be the guy who emulated the establishment candidate’s upstart campaign two years later in Texas.
The tea party has over the years backed some flagrantly unsuitable candidates in Senate primaries — remember Christine O’Donnell? Chris McDaniel? — but it invested very wisely in Cruz and Rubio.
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. Chris Christie, in a testament to his resiliency, is showing signs of life. Jeb Bush will get another look at some point. 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 can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.