Here we go again.
The engorged ensemble of Republican primary candidates will meet for their third televised smackdown (ahem, debate) Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado.
As in the last two GOP debates this cycle, the network (CNBC this time) is dividing the circus into two acts: the mainstage show for the top ten candidates in the polls, and a kids’ table warmup act featuring the four candidates who, despite each polling at 1 percent or less, haven’t quit yet.
For the debate CNBC set a cutoff of a 2.5 percent average in national polls, presumably hoping that the field would be winnowed down. Instead, it failed to reshuffle the players; the also-rans are still also-rans, and the primetime guys (and Carly) are still in the spotlight.
Wednesday’s undercard debate (which will broadcast at 6 pm ET) might only be notable for indicating which Republican will be the next to fold. The second-stringers include former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, and former New York governor George Pataki. It’ll take a fiery performance – and maybe a stroke of deep, preternatural luck – to pull one of these guys into the big leagues.
The headliners’ debate (8 pm ET) will see all the usual suspects returning to their podiums — golf and wall enthusiast Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, U.S. senator Ted Cruz from Texas, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, U.S. senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Ohio governor John Kasich.
The revival is of course missing Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race last month, and encouraged his fellow candidates to do the same in order to focus on giving GOP primary voters a “positive conservative alternative” to Donald Trump.
The Minor-League Debate
Jindal, like most of the GOP field, has been spending his time campaigning in Iowa, which caucuses Feb. 1. He’s been very vocal about what he sees as a “mistake” by those organizing the debates, since they use national polling and not early state polls (mainly Iowa and New Hampshire) to determine who is slotted when. (Jindal is polling eighth in Iowa.)
Calling himself a “a full-spectrum conservative,” Jindal boasted to ABC News about his fight against Planned Parenthood and his plan to rid the country of Obamacare. He has also said that a government shutdown over whether or not to provide federal funding for Planned Parenthood would be squarely President Obama’s fault.
In stark contrast, George Pataki stands out in the current field precisely because of his moderate views on issues like gun control and abortion. Although he held his own in previous debates, it wasn’t enough to garner him much support.
Pataki has engendered some rather harsh skepticism. Nicole Hemmer at US News & World Report called him “a living museum piece” on account of the fact that his brand of Republicanism is not just out of step with today’s GOP – but the with GOP of the last 20 years. Of Pataki, one New Hampshire Republican told Politico: “The Spice Girls were big in the 1990s, too, but no one wants to see them on a reunion tour,”
He knows he’s a long shot – he chuckled at the news of Jeb’s campaign cutting costs, since he had only a fraction of that windfall – but that doesn’t mean he can’t at least try for a bump or two in the polls.
Lindsey Graham recently expressed his exasperation and disbelief that he, a true Republican statesman, could be losing in the polls to Ben Carson and Donald Trump. “How am I losing to these people?” he said on Morning Joe.
But Graham, who is campaigning on the strength of his plan to fight ISIS, also doesn’t have much of a chance. He told the New York Times earlier this year that he finds campaigning “fun,” despite the slog it’s sometimes depicted as. He’s had a couple run-ins with Trump, but despite punching higher (or lower, depending on your view), he hasn’t gained much traction since he started.
And don’t forget about Rick Santorum, who is also gamely campaigning in Iowa, since that’s where you gotta be if you want to win. Santorum, who did well in the early stages of the 2012 presidential race, is often asked about why he’s still running. Trying to position himself as a champion of the middle class (a position many candidates, on both sides, are attempting to run on) he told The Daily Caller that, while he’ll bow out if he fails to gain traction as the campaign continues, “The game plan is to try to peak at the right time.”
“One of the things I learned four years ago is campaigns have a hard time strategically turning the tide of a race,” he said. “You have to sort of commit yourself to a game plan and realize you have to be patient to let itself work out.”
The Primetime Debate
Well it finally happened. Donald Trump is no longer on top. At least not unequivocally on top.
After enjoying a “yoooge” lead in the polls for months, Trump was dealt a little setback this week when a CBS/New York Times national poll found the bombastic tycoon trailing the mild-mannered retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson — 22 to 26 percent.
Carson may be leading Trump in one national poll, but in the crucial state of Iowa, he is beating Trump in virtually every poll, which makes sense given the sway the evangelical bloc has in the Hawkeye State. Trump has failed to credibly establish his Christian bona fides, which is not a problem for Carson — a Seventh-Day Adventist and creationist, who is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest and whose tax plan is “based on tithing, because [he] think[s] God is a pretty fair guy.”
But reports of the demise of Trump’s campaign have been greatly exaggerated in the past. And, as we’re sure he will remind viewers, he is leading Carson by 10 points in two other national polls, but expect this dent in Donald’s streak to come up at the debate. Trump’s repertory is getting exhausted, but he’ll probably have some choice words for whoever brings up his poll numbers.
The candidacy of onetime frontrunner and GOP establishment favorite Jeb Bush is in dire straits, and Wednesday night may be a make-or-break moment. After Jeb’s anemic showing at the last GOP debate — he failed to get Trump to apologize for insulting his wife, then meekly shrugged it off before accepting a low-five from the then-frontrunner — it’s really all on the line.
His campaign is drastically tightening its belt, cutting staff and salaries in an apparent effort to hibernate through the currently unfriendly climate and make a resurgence in time for the caucuses. Jeb’s campaign conceded in a memo that “the contours of this race have changed from what was anticipated at the start.”
Maybe Wednesday is the night the Establishment learns it needs to cut Jeb lose if it wants any chance of beating Trump. They may have another hope in Jeb’s fellow Florida pol, Senator Marco Rubio, who has risen past Bush and is trailing only Carson and Trump in Iowa and national polls.
After Carly Fiorina’s dramatic — though factually loose — railing against Planned Parenthood and take-charge performance at the last debate, she saw a brief surge in the polls, but also increased scrutiny for both her disastrous tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the fact that the macabre images of abortion she described were not actually in the Planned Parenthood “sting” videos.
Compared to fellow political gatecrashers Trump and Carson, she’s just not as good at drawing media attention. Despite the widespread trumpeting that she had won September’s debate, she steps up to the podium on Wednesday night polling more or less where she was a month ago.
Pataki notwithstanding, John Kasich has settled into a little niche as the primary’s most credible moderate. (Okay, “moderate” may be stretching it. But the Ohio governor who expanded Medicaid in his state is practically a radical when you compare him to this crew.) Ever since his surprise edging out of Rick Perry (remember him?) for a top-ten podium spot in the first GOP debate, he has held on to a tenuous position as the grown-up in the room. And in the days leading up to the debate, he hasn’t been shy telling his fellow candidates how insane they and their policies are.
Watch the side fights, as Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz and #1 Kim Davis fan Mike Huckabee each tries to outdo the other in the social conservative front. Rand Paul and Chris Christie will resume their ongoing quarrel, which might be most succinctly summed up as a dispute over just how much the government ought to “get tough” — whether it pertains to domestic surveillance, drug policy, or military action abroad — pitting Paul’s libertarian, non-interventionist streak against Christie’s I-was-there-on-9/11-so-I-don’t-want-to-hear-about-the-Fourth-Amendment-and-also-I’m-coming-for-your-legal-marijuana platform.
And don’t forget — there are eight more Republican primary debates after this one. Pass the popcorn.
Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr (Although depicted, Scott Walker [upper L] is no longer in the race.)
The debates will air on CNBC Wednesday night at 6 pm and 8 pm ET.