MANCHESTER, N.H.— -- The establishment finally struck back. But not in the way anyone might have imagined.
The first Republican debate since voting began revealed a still-unsettled field with as many variables as quarrels among the candidates. Marco Rubio's post-Iowa momentum likely stalled in a flurry of repetition while the three governors in the field made strong, final pitches for New Hampshire to revive their candidacies.
As for those not winning, Rubio took the attacks he knew were coming and answered them -- pretty much the same way. Consistency may be a virtue -- except when you’re being criticized for going rote in a field where others go rogue.
Rubio said he would “dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing.” But once became four times, setting Chris Christie up for a zinger.
“There it is. There it is,” Christie said. “The memorized 25-second speech.”
Iowa’s winner, Ted Cruz, pursued a do-no-harm strategy as he hopes to hold his own Tuesday. He apologized to Ben Carson about alleged dirty campaign tricks in Iowa and benefited from the fact that Carson didn’t pounce.
The dynamics converged to leave an opening for Trump, still the strong frontrunner in New Hampshire. He was back at a debate after skipping the last one before Iowa, yet only Bush -- on the issue of eminent domain -- took him on in a strong way.
“He wants to be a tough guy,” Trump said of Bush.
“How tough it is to take property from an elderly woman,” countered Bush.
The takeaway for a rollicking race is that it appears poised to go on for a while. Trump appears unlikely to be knocked out, and the Republican establishment appears hesitant to coalesce behind Rubio or anyone else.
Rubio had a window, riding high after Iowa, to dispatch several of the others fighting in his lane. That didn’t happen Saturday, and Tuesday could leave things just as unsettled as it’s been from the start.