What To Look For In Tonight’s Debate

You never know: something surprising, even something shocking, something that might turn the presidential race on its head, could happen during the GOP debate in Boulder tonight. But I doubt it. My guess is that the standing of the top six competitors–Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz–will change very little.

Trump could say something outrageous that could cause his support to slide, but that probably won’t happen: he has said plenty of outrageous things already, but they haven’t seemed to hurt him. More likely, the air will continue to slowly seep out of his balloon as more Republican voters realize that he isn’t a conservative, isn’t a loyal Republican (if a Republican at all), and isn’t even a hard-liner on immigration.

Ben Carson may come across as unprepared for the presidency, but so what? That’s already happened and, if anything, it seems to boost his standing with much of the Republican base.

Rubio will perform well, in all likelihood, as he has in past debates, but any gain will be incremental. Republicans who are determined to elect a political newcomer will not suddenly rally to his banner.

Jeb Bush can’t do anything about the fact that he is a Bush, and even if he performs a little better than in past debates, he doesn’t have it in him to deliver a performance so impressive that it will change the downward trajectory of his campaign.

Carly Fiorina has the most to gain: her excellent performance in the second debate launched her among the leaders, for a time. Since then, she has slipped back in the polls. Most likely, she is anxious for another turn on the stage to re-invogorate her campaign.

Ted Cruz will do well, as he always does on the stage. But a lot of people just don’t like him, and I doubt that anything that happens tonight will change that.

In my view, the focus tonight should be on the four bottom contenders in the polls: Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Rand Paul. (I am not commenting on the four who are still lower in the polls and who will participate in an earlier event that promises to be little-watched.) Each of these candidates needs a breakout performance that will provide a rationale for continuing the campaign.

Christie is most likely to deliver that kind of performance. He is very good in a debate format. I am never sure why voters who want someone tough gravitate toward Donald Trump. If you want tough, Christie seems like a good choice. Maybe Republican voters can’t forgive him for hugging President Obama, or maybe too many are convinced that a fat man won’t be elected president. (I think that is true, actually.) Whatever the reason, Christie needs a sensational performance to give life to his campaign–and, who knows, he might deliver it.

Rand Paul is probably the most disappointing candidate so far. Going into the debate season, it was reasonable to expect him to be a key contender, representing an important constituency in the party and having the ability to reach out to a broad spectrum of voters, even if he wasn’t the eventual nominee. But, for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened, and Paul’s candidacy now lacks a compelling rationale. Meanwhile, he is running for re-election to the Senate, and Kentucky Republicans worry that his race could be close, especially if he is spending his time on the presidential campaign trail. If something doesn’t happen for him tonight, it may be time for Paul to forget his presidential run and focus on being re-elected to the Senate.

John Kasich comes across as grumpy, not particularly conservative, and generally yearning for the good old days when he was in the House. None of this is what Republican voters are looking for. Kasich needs to do something tonight–I am not sure what–to explain to voters why he has something unique to offer and should be taken seriously as a candidate.

Finally, Mike Huckabee is turning into a perennial presidential candidate. This is his third second (feels like more somehow) run, and he was such a team player during the second debate that it raised doubts about whether he himself takes his candidacy seriously. Huckabee is a genial personality and a talented politician, but if he wants to have a serious chance at the nomination, he needs to get a lot more aggressive tonight.

I doubt that any of the bottom four will break out, and I doubt that any of the top six will do anything that drastically alters his or her chances, for better or for worse. Which doesn’t mean that the debate won’t be interesting, just that, in all likelihood, it won’t be decisive.

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