A dance to the music of polls — previewing tonight’s GOP debate

The GOP presidential debates are like a typical television series. The quality of actors doesn’t vary much from episode to episode, nor does the general nature of the characters they play. What varies is which character[s] they come into conflict with in a given episode.

In the debate context, this variable is driven by which candidate poll data tells a candidate he (or she) must try to smack down. Early on, for example, Donald Trump went after the two presumed frontrunners — Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Later, he was more interested in taking down a surging Carly Fiorina.

Jeb Bush has consistently been gunning for Trump. However, in one debate he went after Marco Rubio because polls showed Rubio gaining traction in what Bush considers his “lane.”

Tonight, with Trump and Ted Cruz running neck-and-neck in Iowa polling, and that state’s caucus less than three weeks away, the situation seems finally to demand a clash of these titans. Will we see it, and if so, what will it look like?

If CNN, say, were hosting the debate, we could expect the questioning to set up a true food fight at the outset. But Fox Business Channel is hosting. Judging from the previous debate on this network, the questioning may well be focused on economic policy, rather than personality.

Thus, to the extent that Trump and Cruz want to have at each other, they may have to go out their way. If so, will one or the other (or both) want to pick a fight? The answer, I suspect, depends on what their latest polls say.

Assuming a clash occurs, what can we expect it to look like? Substantively, Trump presumably will want to re-raise the natural born citizen issue against Cruz. He may also peddle a New York Times story accusing Cruz of failing to make proper disclosure of a Goldman Sachs loan during his Senate campaign. It’s also possible that he will accuse Cruz of being soft on immigration, as Rubio has done.

If Cruz goes on the attack, I may well cite the best instances of Trump’s non-conservative positions (of which there are many to chose from). Lately, he has also ridiculed Trump’s self-declared reliance on Sunday talk shows for his information on foreign and national security policy (something Bush used in the last debate). And if Trump brings up the New York Times story, Cruz will likely attack the Times, perhaps tying it into Trump’s past embrace of New York City conventional wisdom.

Sounds like a potential standoff in terms of substance.

In terms of performance, Cruz may have the edge. He’s an experienced debater and, more importantly, has shown himself to be extraordinarily disciplined throughout the campaign. Nothing is likely to come out of the Texas Senator’s mouth that hasn’t been carefully calculated.

Trump can be a loose cannon. He may not be able to calibrate his attacks on Cruz. Thus, we may get the equivalent of another “he’s not a war hero,” or “blood coming out of her whatever,” or “look at that face” moment. (To be fair, though, none of these moments occurred during a debate).

So far, Trump has been able easily to survive moments like these. But he did fall from frontrunner to co-frontrunner (at best) in Iowa in part, perhaps, because of his abrasiveness.

It’s definitely possible, then, that a clash with Cruz tonight might produce a setback for Trump. It seems less likely to set back Cruz. However, a standoff seems more likely than not.

UPDATE: Having watched the debate, it seems to me that, contrary to my expectations, Trump set Cruz back.

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