2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: Who Needs this One?

November 10, 2015

Debate #4 begins in a matter of hours.  The hype began long ago.  Each debate is a big deal for each participant until it’s not.  Which main even participants have the most to win or lose tonight?

Sitting Pretty

Donald Trump

Should be a very safe evening for The Donald.  With only 8 people (ok, maybe only wasn’t the right word) on stage, he’ll get plenty of time to do his shtick without getting overbearing.

He’s developed a pretty effective way to attack Carson on questions over his biography without offending anyone who isn’t already anti-Trump.  Economic issues are his forte, and anytime he doesn’t want to get into details, will just say he doesn’t want to show his cards before he actually begins negotiating to Make America Great Again.

After being slightly surpassed by Carson, Trump is now narrowly back ahead in th polling derby.  Those expecting the first sign of second-place status would turn him into a pumpkin are once more disappointed.

Trump has improved enough at debating and shown enough resilience in polling that it’s hard to imagine him fatally wounded by anything transpiring in the debate.  He might gain or lose a couple points, but until someone actually beats him in a primary or caucus, he’s plenty safe.

Marco Rubio

Rubio is good at debates.  Rubio likes talking about economic issues.  Rubio released his remaining credit card statements which showed a whole lot of nothing.  Jeb got his brains beat in trying to challenge him last time.

I’m having a hard time coming up with a scenario where Marco doesn’t do at least pretty well and hang on to his support going forward.  The outsiders still have a good grip on much of the electorate, so even if he has a great evening, it’s unlikely that many voters move much further toward him.

Need to Step Up

Ted Cruz

Senator Cruz did very well in the CNBC debate, both rallying the troops against the moderators and showing a previously little-recognized ability to relate to single mothers.  His ability to connect conservative economic principles to the plight of poor and middle class Americans is the difference between being a viable general election option and ConservaBot.

He needs to prove he can do this twice in a row and without moderator targets to get him warmed up.  When Cruz is over-prepared (like giving a closing statement), he tends to lose any trace of humanity.  Given the CNBC controversy, the Fox Business moderators, already well-respected, are likely to keep things in the center of the fairway.

If the more textured and dimensional Cruz shows up again, he stands to greatly benefit, either as a new home for those worrying about Dr. Carson’s staying power, or those who might prefer Ted to Marco on ideology but worry about a communication deficit.

Carly Fiorina

Lightning didn’t strike a third time in the last debate.  Carly was solid but unspectacular.  Two reasons.  First, the field did better, which combined with the moderator distraction made it hard for Fiorina to stand out.

Second, she didn’t add anything new.  The first time it was exciting to see how well Carly composed answers and contrasted herself with Hillary Clinton.  Round 2 was her main stage debut and efficient takedown of The Donald.

With several candidates showing some staying power in the polls (Trump, Carson, Rubio, probably Cruz), Fiorina faces the dual challenge of finding new things to say and less opportunity to immediately leap back to double-digits if she does.

Previous debates have focused attention on her controversial record at HP.  While it will come up again, it should be less of a focus tonight.  Opposing candidates are more concerned with those with bigger poll numbers.  These moderators will focus more on policy questions.

Speaking of policy, Carly has steadfastly refused to issue the massive policy papers commonly expected of candidates these days.  She correctly points out they never get enacted.  Every 4 years, several candidates have their staffers spend hundreds of hours on this stuff to no real end.

However, they do provide a window into how a candidate might prioritize while in office.  What’s important, who don’t they want to piss off, are they being realistic on the math, etc.  If Fiorina is going to make this stance work for her, she needs to add some texture and give voters and pundits a better idea of how she’ll break the deadlock and make things happen.

While there isn’t pressure on Carly to hit 10% in the polls by next week; she’s comfortably ensconced as a backup option for many, she does need to avoid winding up back in the undercard for the next debate in December.  As such, having new and interesting things to say are a must.

Searching For Tone

John Kasich

If you’d told Team Kasich in early July that Scott Walker would be out in September, Jeb Bush would find himself in mid-single digits nationwide and in New Hampshire in early November, while Chris Christie was relegated to the opening act, they might have started thinking about who to vet for Veep.

It’s like finding your whole draw at Wimbledon or entire regional for March Madness completely obliterated.  With the exception of Marco Rubio, no establishment-friendly candidate is currently better positioned, and many of the establishment persuasion would prefer an experienced, successful governor to a first-term senator who didn’t accomplish much.

So why no Kasich boom?  Tone.  He complained enough about “unserious” Trump and Carson to get just enough exposure in the last debate and barely enough poll support afterward to remain in the main debate.

However, his Essence of Huntsman approach isn’t going to win over enough mainstream conservatives to get him past Rubio.  Unless his entire plan is based on other candidates failing and being the last anti-Trump/Carson standing, it’s not good enough.

Kasich has 10% of Christie’s present baggage, but Christie has a winning tone.  Somewhere buried inside the Ohio governor is a better voice than what he’s used so far.  He must have the ability to speak without referencing how he turned an $8 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus, while cutting taxes.

That one line has caused mass drunkeness for anyone playing a debate drinking game.  It’s time for Kasich to sing a new tune.  While Fiorina needs to add to her pitch, Kasich is out of pitch when he says the CNBC moderators were fine.

If he gets it right tonight, there’s still a very small window to become relevant.  Each debate prep, I talk about this, and each time the opening gets narrower.  It’s beyond time to fix this.

Jeb Bush

Front runner Jeb is dead.  Serious contender Jeb is dead.  Introducing Mr. Fix It.  If he wasn’t burdened by the pressure of Bush 45, or the $100+ million PAC fund, this guy might have shown up earlier.

He’s wonky, a little dorky, but very approachable.  More importantly, he will answer your email, whether you want advice on cleaning your office, are curious if Charlie Strong will turn Texas football around, or want to talk policy.

It’s even a New Hampshire-friendly approach.  A couple weeks ago, I mocked the campaign for suggesting they could pull a McCain and use the Granite State for a rebound, the biggest issue being lack of a hook.  Now he has one.

Unfortunately, any nascent momentum was quickly overshadowed by the new Jon Meacham biography of Jeb’s dad.  Instead of hearing neat anecdotes of the improved candidate, news-following voters were treated to discovering Poppy Bush thinks Dick Cheney is an iron ass.

So, Jeb needs to shake that and the pressure to instantly become a debate wizard off and work on translating Mr. Fix It to the debate stage, not worrying if he sounds a little goofy and making sure to give out his email address.

There’s no need to rush.  The first version of Jeb is long gone.  The new version needs others to fail in front of him.  Baby steps.

Rand Paul

Ron Paul was quirky.  Bernie Sanders is Larry David.  Rand Paul, who didn’t inherit his dad’s support and found himself overshadowed by Bernie is kind of boring to listen to, particularly when contrasted with his ideas which are fairly interesting.

As such, he usually disappears on stage and is barely hanging on to main event status.  Make us really notice you Rand.

Under the Microscope

Ben Carson

First off, the biography stuff is ridiculous.  None of the incidents in question occurred in the past 40+ years.  None were demonstrably proven false.  Sorry, forgetting whether you met General Westmoreland in February or May of 1968 doesn’t count.

Getting the course number of a class you took at Yale early in the Nixon Administration  wrong doesn’t count either.  Carson shouldn’t have to produce friends or relatives to verify he tried to stab them in 1965.

But, he was going to face a media onslaught at some point, and in the future he’ll get attacked for something more justifiable.  There’s always the chance he’s done something wrong as an adult, likely even worse than slightly shading details from his youth.

His core base of supporters will double-down on him right now.  Other conservatives will circle the wagons.  To actually win the nomination, Carson needs to move some of them from defender to supporter.  How he handles himself during this witch hunt will go a long way toward securing or eliminating that prospect.

While being a biography-based candidate makes him more vulnerable to these attacks, his lack of political experience makes the response so important.  This is the perfect example of perception becoming reality.  Handle it well, and he takes a big step forward.

While Carson may not need to deal with this much during the debate, it does give him less room for shaky answers on economic issues.  Whatever his merits, this was not a strength in previous debates.

He’s improved his Sunday show answering, so there’s a good possibility the Doctor will sound better on taxes this time too.  He needs to.  Not to survive the week, but to advance toward being a credible nominee.  The eyes of Republicans are all on him.

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