2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: Who Needs to Score? (Part Three)

September 15, 2015

The three remaining candidates to cover here will make a mark in the debate tomorrow.  As usual, much will revolve around what Trump says and what others say about him.  We can bet he will have plenty to tweet about in the aftermath.  After already objecting to the questions that Hugh Hewitt asked him on the radio, is there any chance he doesn’t go after him during the debate?

There are countless plot lines.  Bobby Jindal will have spent the early debate slamming Trump from pillar to post.  Moderator Hewitt is both a conservative icon and in The Donald’s gunsights.  Trump v. Bush and Trump v. Fiorina are a given.  Trump v. Carson is going to happen whether the Doctor wants to engage or not.

Yet these events will impact the other participants, not Trump.  His fans know what to expect and he will not disappoint them.  Other candidates are high up on the impact list in part because they will need to deal with Trump, but it doesn’t work the same way in reverse.  This is part of the genius in what he’s accomplished strategically over the past couple months.

Usually, the polling front-runner is on defense, fighting off slings and arrows from competitors while trying to consolidate support.  If Trump should happen to falsely claim he invented the phrase “the best defense is a good offense,” he has legitimately perfected it.  Center stage is transformed from a bulls-eye into a Gatling gun.  Love or hate him, you have to respect the achievement.

9. Rand Paul

According to many observers, Paul had a sub-par performance in the first debate.  He engaged Christie and Trump and probably lost both exchanges.  Paul does better pushing back against the establishment or military-security complex than individual GOP candidates.  Between his strategic decision to make peace with Mitch McConnell at the worst possible time, to the dual obstacles of Trump and Bernie Sanders, each capturing mixed ideology Independents Paul was counting on, his path is strewn with giant boulders.

Embracing Mitch killed Outsider Rand, and he’s not a credible mainstream insider.  He doesn’t have executive leadership credentials.  Yet he’s not as DOA as Christie.  He’s not minutes from irrelevancy like Walker, nor at risk of permanently poisoning his nascent brand like Jeb.

While he needs ten to a thousand events to break right to become a top-tier contender, if his immediate goal is survival, no other candidate does the personal liberty thing as well as Rand.  To ensure he stays in the Top 10, and sticks around long enough to build a small foundation, with the potential to have those ahead of him drive off a cliff, it’s time to return to his core.

Spending time jousting with Trump is a mistake if it gets personal rather than remaining issue-based.  The contrast to draw, the one that will resonate with Tea Party and Liberty voters is to emphasize his preference for personal rights and executive limits compared to the candidate who would seemingly act as an elected dictator.

He can’t call him names.  He will lose at that.  He must show Trump will not allow the same amount of personal freedom, using The Donald’s ego to bait him in to making Paul’s point.  If Rand can begin to restore his insurgent bona fides, and can stick around long enough, a path MAY eventually reveal itself.

The sooner the better on that, but since he can only make so much progress in one debate and likely has a floor high enough to make the next main event regardless, it’s not as crucial a debate for him as it is for Christie or Walker.

10. Donald Trump

Rumors that Trump has already sent 10 tweets calling me a loser for putting him this far down on a list are unfounded.  Besides, it’s a compliment to his seeming imperviousness.  Trump claims we should pick him because he’s a great strategist and negotiator.  While he also thinks he has great hair, events are beginning to show there is validity to these specific boasts.

The ridiculously extended campaign process is a drawback for some surprise candidates, but a benefit to others.  If you aren’t built for the long-haul, if you can’t handle extreme pressure, if you aren’t ready to address the skeletons (or Weathermen) in your closet, sayonara.  However, surviving the process is a credential in itself.  Holding up for close to two years was a powerful argument that relatively untested Barack Obama was ready to lead the Free World.

Many GOP partisans could not understand why he was supposedly ready to lead, while the similarly experienced (arguably more) Sarah Palin couldn’t even serve as Veep.  According to the resumes, that’s accurate, but Obama spent 18 months showing voters he was ready for Prime Time.  Palin did not have the time or freedom from intense scrutiny to similarly establish herself.  We’ll never know if she could have.

Trump says he will make great deals for America.  Some voters will accept this on face value.  It’s part of his persona.  Art of the Deal was a best-seller almost 30 years ago.  They watched him on the Apprentice.  Others will never accept a boastful, self-aggrandizing leader when there are plenty of other options.  But there’s a group in the middle, with some GOP voters, some Independents and some Blue Collar Democrats.

These folks either will accept the boastfulness if they think he can deliver or like the ego but want some proof he can actually pull this off.  They don’t want to waste their vote, don’t want to accidentally nominate Jeb or elect Hillary.  For them, continuing to visibly out-maneuver his opponents is evidence he can do to China or Mexico or Putin what he says he will.

Hillary was supposedly Ready on Day One.  She was the leader you wanted picking up the Red Phone, the experienced steady hand to clean up after W, the reminder of Clinton Days gone by.  Until Young Barack schooled her during the campaign.  If she or her team couldn’t figure out how to protect caucus delegates in Idaho, how could you know she would run the country better?

Each debate, each news cycle that goes by with Trump putting his opponents on the defensive, forced to explain themselves as he blusters on without a care for specifics or evidence.  Each week he stays on the strategic high ground, shooting down at undefended competitors, frantically trying to climb the hill or cross the trench before nightfall, he proves his point.  If you can’t handle Trump, how do you handle Putin?  If you can’t out-smart him, how do you out-think the cadre of Harvard-trained Chinese leaders?

The debate is important, and people will play their favorite clips back, but others will rise or fall more than The Donald.  When he wakes up Thursday morning, having unleashed a shitstorm or seven, consider it business as usual.

11. Mike Huckabee

No candidate is more dependent on what other candidates do than Huck.  He’s a social conservative warrior with populist economic undertones.  This is who he was in 2007-08, who he was during his long-running show on Fox News, it’s who he is now.  Trump overshadows the populism, Carson is a fresh face for evangelicals, someone well known to the home school movement when Huckabee was a new governor in Arkansas (yes, he’s both newer and has a longer track-record–its a neat situation). Cruz is a better Tea Party fit.

He has more nationwide name recognition than some of the newer candidates, so as time passes from a debate, as a social issue (i.e. Kentucky gay marriage licensing and the recalcitrant official who was imprisoned) surfaces, Huckabee rises or falls, moving up to a ceiling of 6 to 8% or down to a floor of 2 to 3%.  Whether he enters a debate on podium 9 or 10 at the far side, or podium 5 or 6 depends more on the political weather than him.

Having won in Iowa in 2008, he’s not new and exciting, but does have residual support.  If Carson and Cruz face plant, he’ll scoop up evangelical support before Rick Santorum does.  If Trump implodes, Huck is a populist option.  All he can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and being ready if someone needs to break the glass.

In the debate, he’ll do his thing.  Many voters will smile or chuckle or say amen, before choosing someone else when polled next.  He has low overhead, high name recognition nationally and a consistent theme.  Like coral, he’s going to stick around and collect algae until needed for something else.  This debate means virtually nothing to his chances.

Time to sit back and watch the show.

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