In the final on-stage brawl of 2015, the GOP presidential candidates face growing heat as the field winnows and voters settle in behind leading contenders.
In many ways, the CNN debate Tuesday will be the last chance for several of the candidates to regain some momentum before the front-runners crowd them out for good. Meantime, the leaders need to lock down the voters who have propelled them into the top-tier and define their narratives for the homestretch leading into the caucuses and primaries.
Here is what each of the candidates need to accomplish at the debate Tuesday:
Donald Trump — Bring Back ‘You Versus Us’
Most Americans care little about the intricacies of the nominating process, let alone know the back story behind a brokered convention. There has been significant coverage of Establishment rumblings of a convention effort to topple Trump, but Trump needs to take that coverage and turn it into a full-blown “you versus us” battle between the People and the Washington Establishment.
Shifting the focus of the race back to the outsider vs. insider dynamic, and off of his Muslim ban comments, should be the principal goal of the abiding GOP front-runner. Despite some polling indicating the comments have helped him, they distract from the principal reason for his candidacy and put him on dangerous ground.
Sen. Ted Cruz — Make the Move
Cruz has surged into top-tier contention with a brilliantly executed strategy of patience. A Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters Sunday found the Texas senator notching a 10-point lead for first place in the state.
Cruz is siphoning evangelical support off the downward spiraling campaign of Dr. Ben. Carson, and has cut into some of Trump’s base of outraged voters. To keep his Carson-killing momentum going, Cruz gave a masterfully timed and detailed foreign policy address last week, capping off weeks of foreign policy missteps by Carson.
Cruz needs to continue to define his foreign policy platform on his own terms, outshining Carson’s sophomoric musings amid world crisis, and stiff-arming efforts by Florida Sen. Rubio to corner the market on the issue. A key component for Cruz should be his recent leadership to define the GOP position on the Syrian refugees and his fight to protect the rights of states looking to block forcible refugee settlement in their states with three bills to back the governors up.
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Holding Rubio at bay, and keeping the Carson decline in full swing, Cruz can then continue his forceful populist rhetoric on trade and immigration to methodically peel supporters off of Trump.
Marco Rubio — Invert the Rhetoric
Rubio cannot win the nomination on the tired Old Guard rhetoric of job creation and saber-rattling alone. Already earning the consensus and cash of the Establishment world, Rubio can cement his staying power by playing up his narrative in the language of the populists. Rubio can pump the recent vote to fully repeal Obamacare, and lay out his more elaborate plan to relieve the law’s impact on working Americans. Rubio can also highlight the continuing effort to cut Planned Parenthood funding as an effort to fight for the values of ordinary middle-class Americans.
Rubio can credit Trump and conservatives for moving the conversation to a place that made those efforts possible and associate himself with those small successes. That would surprise voters into listening and lend a little spice to the stale, safe tune sung from Rubio to date.
Chris Christie — Savage Rubio
Christie has a more compelling narrative justifying his candidacy than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and is tied for second place in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. The New Jersey governor has the materials necessary for a breakout, but will only get there if the chosen Establishment favorite son — who at this point looks to be Rubio — slips and falls.
Christie has begun to step up his rhetoric pointed at Rubio, but in Tuesday’s debate, he should let fly with a full bombastic arsenal, hammering Rubio on immigration, trade, and the other areas where Rubio is weak in the year of the outsider.
Only by laying Rubio low can Christie convince Establishment donors he is the bridge they need to win over frustrated voters and stop Trump.
Jeb Bush — Just Say Goodbye?
Bush has utterly failed to gain any meaningful traction in the 2016 contest to date. Worse yet, reports indicate Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC has spent more than half of the money in its coffers to no avail, extinguishing the argument that his vast war chest would carry him back to contention.
Bush can attempt to carry the old GOP mantle of war hawk, but with the Establishment world coalescing behind Rubio, he will find little enthusiasm or attention without a significant Rubio stumble.
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It is time for Bush to start planning a graceful exit, one that saves the former governor from ridicule as the failed banner-carrier of the family’s political tradition.
Ben Carson — Stop the Bleeding
It has not been a good month for the good doctor. Carson saw his personal appeal carry him to the top of national polls, the only candidate since July to top Trump in any of the surveys, only to fall to fourth place after a series of missteps and a shift in focus to foreign policy.
Carson needs during the debate to get a tourniquet on his bleeding candidacy. Carson can fight for evangelical voters by bringing the conversation to the unspeakable genocide facing Christians in the Middle East and invoking biblical references, while hammering leaders in Washington for doing nothing to specially aid the over 1.3 million Christians killed, imprisoned, or displaced since 2011.
Carson has also smartly looked to ride the Trump wave of outrage against a brokered convention that would circumvent the people’s will. Carson should be the first to come out on the brokered convention, hammer it forcefully, and remind voters he is ready to grab a pitchfork and join them outside the ramparts.
John Kasich — Look Vice Presidential
Kasich torpedoed his own ship in previous debate performances with on-stage digs at conservative viewpoints on immigration. Often appearing too exasperated at voters for not acknowledging his towering excellence, Kasich’s pride has hamstrung his performances and prevented a breakout moment. As the governor of Ohio, the Mother of all Swing States, he carries the card as potentially the strongest veep nod of candidates running for the top job, so he should soften his disdain for base conservatives, and avoid gaffes to keep that card in play.
Carly Fiorina — Out-Trump Trump
Fiorina scraped into the primetime debate by the skin of her teeth, and she desperately needs to give voters a reason for her candidacy other than her first handful of solid debate performances. Voters agree with her slogan to take back Washington, but they find Trump and Cruz more equipped to rock the Establishment’s world — and more ruthless in their approach so far. To gain attention, Fiorina will need to be bolder, and out-Trump Trump. She may not, because after all, to do so would likely take her out of vice presidential contention if an Establishment candidate is ultimately nominated.
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Rand Paul — Drop Out Watch
Paul has done well in recent debates. But the Kentucky senator needs to define himself as something genuine and truly original as the pockets of voter support he might gain fall more heavily behind his Senate colleagues, Cruz and Rubio. It’s getting to be too little too late for Paul.