It's still a long road to the Republican presidential convention this summer in Cleveland. But billionaire businessman Donald Trump could turn his early momentum into the GOP nomination, if none of his rivals can break out of his shadow and offer a viable alternative, said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, a day after Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
After being edged out by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the Iowa caucuses, Trump got his first win in New Hampshire, with 35.3 percent of the vote, more than doubling the 15.8 percent tally of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who jumped into a second. Cruz finished New Hampshire at 11.7 percent, in a virtual tie with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 11.1 percent.
"As long all those folks stay bunched together, Trump is going to ride this pony all the way Ohio and the convention, and there will be very little folks can do to stop him," Steele told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who failed to turn his strong third place Iowa finish into New Hampshire success, came in fifth place with 10.5 percent, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 7.4 percent, who went home to take what he called a "deep breath."
"[Christie] set up the reset in this race by taking down Marco Rubio, by exposing Marco Rubio in such a way that put Marco in fifth," Steele argued, referring to how Christie called out Rubio in Saturday's debate for being too scripted.
Many GOP pundits, Steele included, were questioning whether Christie would drop out of the race.
"Trump is ahead. There's no question about that," said Kay Bailey Hutchison, a former Republican senator from Texas in a separate "Squawk Box" interview. "[But] I think as other candidates go away and there is a smaller group on the other side you are going to see a much closer race."
With New Hampshire and Iowa in the rearview mirror, the candidates left standing look next to the nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina later this month and Super Tuesday on March 1.
"We're not going to see a true trend until March 1st," said Hutchison, who feels Bush still has a chance.
Steele agrees. "Bush has a good ground game in South Carolina. If posts well — a third place, even a second place finish behind Trump — then it's a whole other reset."
J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, said on "Squawk Box" Wednesday that Bush may have more staying power than Kasich because the former Florida governor has more resources to deploy in upcoming nominating states.
As for Trump, Watts said, "Donald Trump, I think, probably finds it a little more difficult in a place like South Carolina, where Jeb and Kasich and Cruz and Rubio … would find it a little more comforting."
The RealClear Politics polling aggregator showed that Trump had big lead in South Carolina, with 36 percent support, followed by Cruz at 19.7 percent, Rubio at 12.7 percent, and Bush at 10 percent. While Kasich had only 2 percent support, it's worth noting the polling data were from late January, before Iowa and New Hampshire.