Welcome back to the GOP Thunderdome.
The candidates have got their zingers ready, loaded with talking points to launch at each other and the moderators like so many verbal bird bolts. The only things they can all agree on is that Hillary Clinton is evil, and that the last seven years didn’t happen in any way that accords with reality.
As Fox News did back in August, CNN has divided the second Republican debate into two movements: a primetime showdown for the top 11 candidates who still stand a chance at the nomination, and a warmup act picking up the runoff.
Here are some things to look out for in this, the second round of the Republican bout for the big chair.
1. The Underdogs Are Back In Town
Back in August, the breakout star of the GOPeeWee debate was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, whose conviction and confidence catapulted her poll numbers from a negligible low to an even keel with the likes of Republican luminaries Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich.
A seemingly last-minute revision in the rules of the debate allowed Fiorina to surge into the 11th spot on what was meant to be a Top 10 card.
But the fortunes of the four candidates who made the happy-hour ticket are pretty much DOA. With all of them polling at or around 1 percent, they barely have a heartbeat in the race.
Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore was not even invited to the minor-league debate, though he said he would be live tweeting. (National Memo will also be live tweeting the debates, and we stand about an equal chance of winning the Republican nomination.)
Expect Lindsey Graham to rattle his saber about ISIS, and Bobby Jindal to continue his crusade against Donald Trump. Rick Santorum may try to fill the (infinitesimal) vacuum left by Rick Perry and present himself as the credible authority on immigration, unlike Trump. The pro-gun-control, pro-choice George Pataki will try to act like a reasonable person, because that’s about the only tactic he has left.
2. The Inside/Outsiders
Fiorina wasn’t the only outsider to leap into the field.
Seizing on diminishing faith in the Republican establishment (remember when Jeb was a frontrunner?) and widespread discontent with the political niceties in general, Donald Trump rode a wave of bluster and bullying to rise from a sideshow joke, who reportedly had to pack his own announcement speech with paid extras, to a credible threat to every other Republican candidate.
In his own quiet way, Dr. Ben Carson’s narrative of party crashing and unlikely ascension mirrors Trump’s. The calm, studious neurosurgeon has repeatedly invoked the human brain’s capacity to adapt and learn as a way of deflecting attention from his own political inexperience and occasional gaffes that have revealed his glaring ignorance of foreign and domestic affairs.
With Fiorina, Carson, and Trump collectively snagging nearly the majority of Republican voters, rising stars like Walker and Rubio, and establishment totems like Bush, have been on the sidelines. Tonight, expect to hear them roar.
3. Everybody Hates Trump
To paraphrase Rick Wilson writing in Politico, this is the moment to go medieval on the ass of The Donald.
But whether the remaining candidates have found among the 10 of them the collective courage to take on Trump remains to be seen.
At least one, Ted Cruz, has made the dangerous, but not necessarily stupid, bet of hitching his wagon to Trump, a man he has described as his “friend.” It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement: Cruz, the career politician with an air of gravitas, provides experience and ballast to the bombastic Trump, while still being inflamed by the same righteous anti-establishment rage that animates his supporters. Cruz also has on hand the social conservative bonafides that Trump has failed to bring convincingly to the table.
Rosalind Wiseman, a national bullying expert who wrote a book that formed the basis of the movie Mean Girls, found that The Donald’s rhetorical tactics closely mirrored those of an adolescent bully “who truly does not care about the consequences of his actions” and “delights in his own ability to manipulate and to show that nobody can stop him.”
For the most part, the GOP contenders have stood on the corner like a pack of abused dogs for long enough, letting Trump roll over them. But now that they know there’s nothing to be gained by playing nice, and since most pundits and pols have made the transition from amused to terrified, the places where Donald is vulnerable to attack are likely to get exposed: his business connections, his affiliations with the Clintons, his waffling on abortion, health care, and gay marriage — plus his own multiple marriages and history of infidelity.
Tonight, Trump’s blood is in the water.
4. Watch the Corners
Don’t let the explosive Trump vs. The World melodrama draw all the attention away from the other side fights.
You can expect Chris Christie and Rand Paul to resume their fiery tête-à-tête regarding domestic surveillance and civil liberties. At the August debate, Christie cited the tragedy of 9/11 and touted his record of prosecuting terrorists under the PATRIOT Act. Paul, the Kentucky senator with the libertarian streak, accused Christie of fundamentally misunderstanding the Bill of Rights, and in particular the Fourth Amendment, and of indiscriminately rounding up records on innocent Americans.
Expect social conservatives — particularly Cruz and Mike Huckabee — to argue over who can impose the most effective Christian theocracy on America. The fronts for this particular battle include gay marriage, Planned Parenthood, and the noxious notion of “religious liberty.”
Cruz is trying to build up right-wing momentum to have a standoff over defunding Planned Parenthood, which could result in a(nother) federal government shutdown. The leadership doesn’t want to do it, opening more fissures between Cruz’s fire-breathing brand of Tea Party conservatism and the hapless Republicans trying to actually run things.
Kim Davis, the recalcitrant Kentucky county clerk is likely to get namechecked. GOP candidates’ attitudes toward the anti-gay bureaucrat, who spent five nights in jail rather than issue a same-sex marriage license, have run the gamut: Christie and Fiorina told her to do her job, while Huckabee and Cruz are ready to make her a saint — even though she’s actually a Democrat! (Perhaps the outpouring of Republican support will sway Davis’ affiliation: she already found Jesus, it shouldn’t be too hard to find Reagan.)
Despite being a devout Christian, Ohio governor John Kasich is among the more reasonable on the subject of marriage equality — simply by having conceded that the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage is indeed the law of the land, and that everyone should abide by it. In the first debate, he also noted that he personally attended a gay friend’s wedding.
5. Skeletons in the Closet
Of course it wouldn’t be a good debate without a couple of good “gotcha” questions — or, as we used to call them, “questions.” Possibly topics may include the following:
It so happens tonight’s debate occurs just after the seven-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers — an implosion that precipitated the Great Recession. Lest we forget, two of tonight’s debaters — John Kasich and Jeb Bush — used to work at Lehman, as an executive and advisor respectively, during the highly consequential era of the Freewheelin’ Aughts. Watch them try to square their record of helping to demolish the economy with their promises to fix it.
Tapper will likely ask Carson to expand on his proposal to abolish the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Carly Fiorina might come under scrutiny over the recently unearthed report that her company, Hewlett-Packard, did extensive business with Iran through foreign intermediaries. Though come to think of it, this shouldn’t be a disqualifier: Dick Cheney did business with Iran while at Halliburton — and the great GOP demigod and namesake of Wednesday night’s debate venue, President Ronald Reagan, sold Iran weapons while he was actually in the White House.
The debates will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and will air on CNN Wednesday night at 6 pm and 8 pm ET.
Illustration: DonkeyHonkey via Flickr
Copyright 2015 The National Memo