February 13, 2016
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this is a big debate. Early on, months ahead of voting, you can only temporarily forward yourself. Ask Carly Florina how much of a guarantee a debate win is. It’s possible (Rick Perry) to sink yourself.
Now the events are actually significant. With several candidates in the running, there’s more opportunity for harm than help, but even picking up a few points on primary day is a big deal.
No matter what happens tonight, Donald Trump is going to remain firmly in the running for the nomination. Others are not on equally solid ground. Let’s take a look at the field in order of how badly they need a great debate, ideally with the perfect, repeatable clip.
The first post-New Hampshire poll out of the chute has Jeb trailing Rubio by 4 and only leading Kasich by 2. He’s 25 behind Trump. That’s not going to work. In many respects, South Carolina is Jeb’s last stand.
If you are going to claim you are the only candidate going after Donald Trump, you eventually need to draw some blood. He spent $36 million for 11% in New Hampshire. That’s not exactly sustainable.
Progress in the debate is a must. Jeb hasn’t shown much closing ability so far. His voting results didn’t exceed his polling numbers. The impending arrival of his big brother should help a bit, but he’s not getting Jeb from 11% to 18-20% on his own.
Fortunately, he’s now pretty good at debating and has shown definite continuing improvement each of the last three debates. He needs one more gear.
Two debates ago, he drew for the first time in his joust with Trump. Last debate, he probably won the exchange. When he faces off this time, he needs a resounding triumph.
Back in October, he tried to hit Rubio and wound up with a transparently prepped boomerang attack. More recently, he’s at least matched Marco. This time he needs to noticeably draw blood, but do so in a way less overt than Christie did.
Finally, there’s still another governor in the race. As Christie learned, you can say a governor is better, but unless you can convince voters you are that governor, it may help an opponent.
He can say Trump would be a worse president than Barack Obama all he wants, but that doesn’t explain why voters need Jeb. Last time Kasich was the beneficiary of this type of approach. It would happen again.
As usual, he has the most to gain, most to lose. The disaster exchange with Chris Christie last week puts extra emphasis on how he does this time.
In a perfect world, he does his version of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “I will not make an issue of or exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
In the first fall debate against Walter Mondale, Reagan did not do well. More significantly, he delivered a rambling closing statement, leaving many viewers to wonder if he was still up to the rigors of the job at age 73. His poll numbers dropped noticeably right after.
With one well timed comment, the damage was immediately reversed and he coasted to victory. Rubio has the potential to become an excellent communicator. The difference between potential and president is how a candidate handles a situation like this.
Trump is probably too far ahead to catch, but Ted Cruz is right in range if he knocks this question out of the park and otherwise does well. Another shaky performance and Rubio is close to elimination as a contender.
He’s running some semi-clever advertising. Solid enough to make The Donald threaten to sue if he doesn’t remove it. The pieces are targeted to a somewhat upscale audience. The perfect recipient is an educated professional about Ted’s age.
It’s a way to try to pull those voters away from Trump and keep them from visiting Rubio before they get to him. Though not exactly subtle, the pieces are less overt than Ted’s normal stump speech.
The challenge is simple. So far, Cruz is marketing himself almost entirely to very strong conservatives and evangelicals (particularly voters who answer to both descriptions.) This isn’t Iowa. There are not enough of these core/base voters to get him past Trump.
There are only 6 candidates left. That means they’ll get an average of 16.7% of the vote. The winner needs a solid 30% if not more. To get there, Ted needs to broaden his audience and supporter base.
If he can repeat his tone from the CNBC debate back in October, he’ll make sure to stay ahead of Rubio (unless Marco just kills his robot response bit), and at least get close enough to Trump to declare pseudo-victory.
If the same Cruz from the past few debates shows up, and he does nothing more than fight Trump on who is more conservative, and Rubio on who is stronger on immigration, he’s not going to finish where he needs to.
Although March 1 shapes up well for him, failure to do well tonight means underperformance in South Carolina, which means very diminished nomination chances.
He’s mostly playing with house money in the Palmetto State. Nobody expects anything of him. Trump is Trump, Cruz has at least 10,000 volunteers and scads of evangelical voters to concentrate on. Rubio’s campaign team is from South Carolina and he needs to redeem himself. Jeb brought in the cavalry.
Anything in double-digits counts as a win. Finishing ahead of Jeb or Rubio is potentially fatal for them. Still, he does need to make a positive impression. Voters in South Carolina are beginning to give him a look, but aren’t committed. A major faux pas and it’s back to Ohio.
There is a play for him. Many of us have questioned how the Jon Huntsman act will play outside of New Hampshire. There’s another angle. Kasich is way less elitist-sounding than the ex-Ambassador who spoke in Chinese during a 2012 debate.
South Carolina is an open primary. Many of the March 1 states are too. Hillary is moving left so quickly, she’s racing Bernie to fall off the ideological map first. For the many moderate to semi-conservative red state voters who are still registered Democrats, the resolutely non-partisan Kasich is an option.
His target is remaining viable until the race moves to the Midwest. Picking up an extra few points this way could make the difference. Look for a red state version of his New Hampshire pitch. You’ll find he sounds distinctly more religious, which is the real Kasich.
The latest news has The Donald threatening to sue Cruz over his natural born status if Ted doesn’t immediately cease and desist from running attack ads against him. Trump being Trump. As usual, on the surface, it seems mildly ridiculous for a clear front runner to play games like this.
On the other hand, he controls another news cycle, forces the issue in the debate, and sets up a situation where it’s lethal if Cruz backs down again. Part of this is about keeping Ted off balance, part is Trump not wanting to let someone get away with attacking him.
At this point, Trump’s gain is in making it almost mathematically impossible for Cruz to win South Carolina, something that would occur if The Donald clearly bests him in the debate.
He’d have to slip up tremendously to do anything to turn his acolytes off. Given how much his skill has improved over the past several months, that’s unlikely if not completely impossible.
With most of his opponents more concerned with someone else, I’m assuming he’s looking forward to the next round.
Side Advantage: Trump is very familiar with the moderator. John Dickerson hosts Face the Nation. The Donald is on at least twice a month.
His result really doesn’t matter at all, beyond Carson’s ability to damage Ted Cruz. Absolute best case, he winds up at 10 or 12 percent, ahead of Kasich, and can justify continuing on until March 1. At the present time, he has zero path to the nomination, making the stakes as low as can be.