Tonight's GOP Debate: The Trump Show

by Michael Sean Winters

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When the Olympics begin, the Opening Ceremonies conclude with the lighting of the Olympic flame. The campaign for the GOP presidential nomination begins in earnest tonight, with the first debate, but the flame has already been lit and its name is Donald Trump.

Trump has surged to a substantial, double-digit lead in all the national polls. At this stage in the nominating process, polls are not very good predictors of final outcomes. Herman Cain briefly led the polls four years ago. Many eventual voters may not be familiar with some, or even many, of the candidates yet. But, everyone on the planet knows The Donald.

Name recognition cannot account, however, for Trump’s rise in the polls since entering the race. His combative style, his willingness to say what certain conservative voters think but most candidates will not voice, combined with his out-sized personality which is so deeply ingrained by now that he comes across as sincere and authentic, these are why he has surged into the lead. It is more than his outrageous comments about immigrants, comments that would have tanked most candidates but seem to have hit pay dirt in today’s GOP. Unlike the careful, polished, highly managed speaking style of most politicians, Trump is brash, shoots from the hip, and people like it.

Ironically for a frontrunner, Trump has almost nothing to lose in tonight’s debate. Normally, the frontrunner should expect to be the recipient of the most forceful criticisms from the other debate participants. But, Trump being Trump, the other candidates are going to be wary of tangling with him in a rhetorical high-wire venue: When the choice of weapons in a duel is verbiage, Trump does not need a second. If Trump becomes all bombastic tonight, what is the downside? Bombast got him this far. If he dials it back, and appears more calm and less acerbic, he might win over the 11% of Republican voters who currently rank him as their second choice. Trump is an odd combination of Norman Vincent Peale, with his power of positive thinking, and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the brutish voice of the new Nativism. It is an odd combination, but its oddness does not mean it will not continue to work very well with the GOP primary electorate.

The one arrow in Trump’s quiver that he must be careful with tonight is his willingness to attack the media. Going after the New York Times wins him support from Republican voters. But, if the panel from Fox News asks him a question he doesn’t like tonight, will he attack them? Megyn Kelly is a Fox News hero and Trump should not attack her to be sure. GOP voters really do think Fox is fair and balanced. If this were a CNN debate, and Trump got a tough question, attacking Anderson Cooper would win him high marks, but this is not a CNN debate.

The stakes for former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker are very, very high. They are the only other two candidates in double digits in the polls, and both are seeking to occupy the same spot, the un-Trump. Bush seems like a politician from an earlier, softer era, patrician, thoughtful, willing to think out loud. He is more like his dad than his brother, and more like his grandfather than either. Jeb Bush would never look out of place at a Greenwich, Connecticut tea. His goal tonight is to show how genuinely conservative he was as Governor of Florida.

Gov. Scott Walker is a darling of the right largely because he took on the unions and won, yet he is himself a blue collar kind of guy. The question he needs to put to rest tonight is whether or not he is ready for the big leagues. He often has a deer in the headlights look when asked a tough question. And, while he could dodge a question about evolution when asked about it on a trade trip to London, he won’t be able to dodge tonight. Indeed, with straight-talker Trump beside him, any dodging and weaving by Walker may ruin his brand irrevocably with GOP voters, most of whom know little about him.

The others on the stage will be looking for a breakout moment, something that will allow themselves to move out of the 4-6% polling range into double digits. Sen. Marco Rubio is all fluff and gauze, and tonight he needs to find a moment in which he can show some steel. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s calm tone does well in an interview but I can’t imagine he will be a dominating presence in a debate format. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is a genuinely decent guy, a governor who has learned from his mistakes, far less polarizing than he was when he served in Congress, but so far his campaign speeches turn him into a soprano – me, me, me. He needs to shed that fast. Gov. Chris Christie is one person on the stage who could go toe-to-toe with Trump, but probably will look for a different opportunity to strut his stuff, maybe going after Walker. Christie has to be careful about attacking Bush seeing as they both present as establishment types with strong ties to the world of finance, and Christie needs to balance the desire to steal some of Bush’s votes with the need to avoid alienating voters he would eventually want if Bush fades. The same dynamic applies to Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also someone capable of challenging Trump, but who has almost no incentive to do so. If Trump crashes and burns on his own, Cruz stands to benefit the most with former Trump voters. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee will be Mike Huckabee. He met with success in 2008 when he had the social conservative vote to himself. I do not see how he reinserts himself into this race in a meaningful way. And. Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign has been so poorly run to date, it is hard to imagine he will come up with an effective strategy for tonight. Look for him to call out everyone on the stage as a hawk, and hope for the best, but seeing as the GOP primary electorate is pretty hawkish, I do not see how that gets him a bump in the polls.

At the kiddie table, featuring the candidates that did not make into on to the main stage, the candidates need to avoid complaining about the fact that they did not make the cut, and find some way to suggest that they deserved a place at the adult table, hoping that next round will find them there. There is a chance that the big debate will be boring: The format is tight with only one minute answers, and everyone seems reluctant to go after Trump. The best lines of the night may come from the earlier debate with the also-rans, one of whom could move up on to the main stage with a really resonant gotcha moment.

My housemate said he would rather have his teeth pulled than watch the debate tonight. For me, this is catnip. I won’t miss a minute.   

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