Politics

Debate No. 2: What Each Must Do

GOP 2016 hopefuls know Wednesday may be do or die

The Republican debate Wednesday night likely will mark the last prime-time confrontation featuring such a vast array of candidates displaced by the deep draw of Donald Trump — and those floundering to make a headway know it.

Gov. Rick Perry already has bailed out, and more are sure to follow. Some already are on death watch. This second debate could be the last opportunity to stand out, ignite some momentum. Without that, money will dry up faster than bird poop on a tin roof, the TV hits will dwindle, and oops, they’ll follow the former Texas governor right out the door.

The candidates will be taking dead aim at Trump, who has led 20 consecutive national polls of Republican primary voters, every such poll since July 12.

There was little movement in the first debate. Many agreed that Carly Fiorina acquitted herself well in the pre-show debate, some said, “Hey, this Kasich guy is kind of interesting,” but in the end The Donald ruled the roost in the prime-time version, out-crowing his chicken challengers.

But that was last month, in the summer doldrums, the dog days of August. Political pundits — and that one uncle who is always yapping away about politics — all agree the real show gets going after Labor Day. In this second debate, the candidates will be taking dead aim at Trump, who has led 20 consecutive national polls of Republican primary voters, every such poll since July 12.

The debate Wednesday night may well determine whether the real estate mogul will continue to dominate the conversation into the gall, or whether a challenger — or CNN, which is hosting the debate — can finally draw blood in the so-far politically invulnerable White House aspirant.

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With that in mind, here’s how we think the night will play out, with a bit of advice for the candidates:

Donald Trump — Keep on Keeping On
The path forward for Trump is obvious — keep doing what you’re doing. Trump has dominated the conversation of the GOP contest to a historic degree, forcing the few candidates who do get any airtime to make their case within the context set by Trump (as in: “Do you agree with him that all Mexicans are rapists and criminals?”).

In the first GOP presidential debate, the candidates underestimated the potency of Trump’s combative, bombastic persona. Opponents and pundits alike beamed at the exchange with Megyn Kelly and the even nastier aftermath, predicting the end of the line for Trump. Those naysayers were disappointed then, and will arrive Wednesday better armed with new tactics to harpoon Trump — most likely with attack lines on his conservative credentials.

Trump will need to deflect these attacks with his usual air of disdain for political, insider-Washington speak and create an incident — or several — to keep the focus on him in the coverage following the event. He is, after all, a reality TV star.

Ben Carson  Phone in the Debate and Raise Some Cash
As of the last publicly available reports, Ben Carson’s campaign and his supporting Super PAC had raised a paltry $10.8 million. That’s $5 million less than Perry, the first dead man of 2016, and only 9 percent of the cash raised by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, currently sitting at third place, right below Carson in the polls.

Yet with little organization, a poorly funded operation, and hardly a blip in the way of headlines (other than a tense exchange with Trump), the soft-spoken doctor has remained miraculously high in the polls. Without the resources to hit the airwaves and muster a real organization, Carson will inevitably fall as better funded candidates make their move to supplant those above them.

Carson always comes off as affable  and passionate. In the August debate he also showcased his humor. That will serve just fine Wednesday night, and Carson should fill in his schedule with some West Coast fundraisers while he’s out there.

Jeb Bush  Do Something, Anything
Bush seems to relish his description by Trump as “low-energy.” But the moniker is starting to stick.

Bush has offered no reason to support his presidential bid with any kind of enthusiasm unless you are a multinational corporation looking for a big influx of cheap foreign labor. Every indication from the Bush camp suggests it intends to rely on the candidate’s vast war chest to win the race on the airwaves, without attempting to compete with personality.

That may be enough, but it would be a better idea to show some fight in this debate, and forcefully take some position other than supporting more legal immigrants, and the intake of Syrian refugees. He recently donned a “Reagan-Bush 1984” T-shirt, revealing it like Superman. Now it’s time to get back in the phone booth and make the transformation for real.

Ted Cruz  Keep Doing What You’re Doing
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is arguably the best positioned of any candidate in the race. Cruz has amassed the second biggest war chest, behind Bush, and has maintained a top-tier position while spending very little of that stockpile.

Cruz has skillfully campaigned on the substance of Trump’s populist rhetoric. Cruz will need to keep the mantle of the most virulently anti-establishment, anti-donor class candidate who is not Trump. Doubtless New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and others, will be trying to take it, so Cruz will need to remind frustrated voters he is the renegade with a record.

Last week, Cruz made a joint appearance with Trump, grabbing some headlines of his own. He’s no doubt positioning himself as the Trumpiest candidate out there should the current frontrunner implode, a savvy move.

Marco Rubio  Take On the Mentor
Sen. Marco Rubio is something of a protegé of fellow Floridian Bush and as such has kept his comments complimentary towards the better-funded fellow favorite of the Washington establishment. In order to have a real chance at the nomination, Rubio needs Bush to stumble and fall.

Rubio could quicken that process by launching a surprise assault on Bush at the debate. An ideal line of attack would be one that focuses on both the irrelevance of the 8-year-old Bush record in Florida, and one that tweaks the former ally for his dedication to national Common Core standards.

Those attacks would highlight the freshness of his own candidacy, including his youth, and create space with Bush on an issue important to conservatives who already are well aware of the closeness of the candidates on immigration.

Carly Fiorina  Earn that Spot, Beware of Trump
CNN and the Republican National Committee changed the rules of the primetime debate to allow Carly Fiorina to participate. She will need to prove that she belonged on that stage all along by going toe-to-toe with her opponents, and coming out of those clashes unbloodied.

“I will challenge … the entertainer,” Fiorina said at a Sunday campaign event in New Hampshire.

Fiorina has blasted Trump for comments made about her appearance, and an antagonistic showdown is expected between the pair.

Therein lies the greatest danger for Fiorina, and for many of the candidates. Sen. Rand Paul, Perry, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Gov. Bobby Jindal have targeted Trump with everything they had, only to see their support fall — and his to rise.

“It’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had in my life,” Trump said in an August interview on Fox & Friends, “everyone that attacks me goes down to 0.”

Fiorina will have to step over the political bones of other 2016 contenders to test Trump’s armor, but she’s shown herself up to the task.

Scott Walker  Get a Second Look
Once an unchallenged candidate of the top-tier, Gov. Scott Walker has been markedly humbled in recent polls showing his standing down to the low single digits.

Walker has unveiled a union reform plan, aimed to play to his strengths, which he will be looking to highlight Wednesday night. Walker will need to remind voters of his victories over organized labor in Wisconsin, which once endeared him to conservatives, and earn a second look.

Mike Huckabee  Rekindle the Evangelical Flame

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had a credible run for the nomination in 2008 because he was the clear choice for many evangelical voters. Huckabee’s 2016 bid has suffered mightily as Cruz has scooped up much of that constituency. Huckabee has begun to make a play to win those voters back with his offer to go to jail in place of Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.

But the most recent poll of Republican caucus goers in Iowa found Huckabee lagging at 4 percent in the state he won by nearly 10 percent in 2008. If Rubio must survive by bringing down Bush, then so, too, must Huckabee survive only by finding a way to sink Cruz.

Kasich  Why You?
Memo to Ohio Gov. John Kasich: Everyone knows you have a great resume, and by now many also know your father was a mailman. Kasich does have a claim to having a wider, deeper set of credentials than any other candidate in the race from either party, with the exception of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. But Kasich has yet to establish an urgency for voters to get behind his bid with any kind of enthusiasm.

Now is the time for Kasich to establish the compelling justification for his candidacy other than being a more seasoned, and more recently relevant moderate than Bush or Rubio.

Chris Christie  The New Plan is a Good Plan
The Summer of Trump has been particularly harsh for the New Jersey governor. Once the champion of tough, straight talk in the GOP field, Christie has struggled to emerge from a long drought of attention in the wake of Trump’s coverage dominance.

Christie and his team have identified a two-pronged strategy to maintain relevance. The first is to hammer the Washington establishment and Washington candidates in an attempt to channel the enthusiasm for Trump. The second is to define himself as the candidate of law and order.

Christie knows he is slipping in the polls, and his fundraising is subsequently suffering. In order to leave the path for a comeback intact, Christie may be hoping the current explosion of violent crime hits the forefront of 2016, carrying the former U.S. attorney back into the top-tier conversation.

Christie’s status as a top competitor is unquestionably sinking, his plan to stake his comeback on law and order is achievable and well founded. He should hammer those notes at the debate, the rest will be up to fate.

Rand Paul  Last Chance
Sen. Rand Paul may have the dubious distinction of leading the dropout watch among top-tier contenders. Up for re-election in his home state of Kentucky, the libertarian-leaning senator has totally failed to generate grassroots momentum or raise a considerable war chest.

Paul carries the second unfortunate superlative of possibly being the biggest loser of the first primetime debate. Paul’s attacks on Trump sounded more whiny than substantive. A hostile exchange with Christie left Paul looking foolish and petty after Christie invoked memories of time with the families of 9/11 victims.

This debate may be Paul’s last chance to make some news, stand out from the pack, and generate some momentum. If he repeats his performance in the first debate, or cannot stand out, the political reaper may be coming for the him next.

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