The repeated conservative attacks on Donald Trump have failed, because they are off the mark.
Candidates like Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Bobby Jindal did not have the positive image and standing to attack, and they came across as desperate and petulant bottom-feeders. Some of Jindal's points are worth discussing, but for many voters, Jindal's attack seemed harsh and personal. He's now in the earlier wannabee debate in which, according to CNN rules, excerpts or lifts, such as an attack against Trump, might be replayed in the main debate. That would be attack by proxy.
Scott Walker, the original choice of the Kochs, could have been vetted and rejected as the Anti-Charisma. Now, he is all but out of the race, but he has suddenly ramped up criticism of Trump, criticism which will be seen, or called into question by Trump, as sour grapes. The now-forgettable Walker, who -- with his "Red State" obsession -- sounds more like he's speaking to a PAC (political action committee) than voters, has a record in Wisconsin that Republican voters nationally would like, but Walker has appeared lackluster. His proposed abortion ban, without an exemption for life of the mother, was dispositive. Now that he retreats mainly to taking on unions nationally, he will come across as one-issue, and also irrelevant. He certainly cannot effectively take on Trump in Simi Valley.
Cruz, highly intelligent and very articulate, has a truce with Trump, because Cruz goes for a classic strategy of trying to be above the fray. He also hopes that, although he is an elected official, he still can be seen as an outsider taking on the Republican establishment, while inside the beltway. He also may entertain a fantasy of being Trump's running-mate.
Marco Rubio needs to age. He has enormous potential, but he has appeared glib, formula, programmed and scripted, so that he now fits the stereotype that Trump paints of politicians from central casting who cannot be trusted.
John Kasich is the dark horse who could be the last man standing, down the road. But the shrewd Kasich is concentrating on New Hampshire and is unlikely to go negative on Trump at this stage of the game. That means Trump will not attack him in the debate.
As for Bush, Trump has successfully discredited Jeb, who suffers by dynasty implication from Hillary's decline. And Bush's mistake-prone stream of consciousness campaigning has not helped. Bush seems often on the defensive and lacks the clout to take on Trump, though he may well over-compensate in tomorrow's debate...to repudiate Trump's attack on him as low-energy. Reportedly, about one-fourth of his $100 million SuperPAC money has been earmarked toward massive television buys, especially targeting New Hampshire and Iowa. But those introductory ads -- though early in the primary season by past standards, may be too late to "introduce" Jeb. Besides, they are old-style, voice-over politician ads from a generation ago.
Fiorina's Super PAC has made this into a feminist brawl with its new ad, and that's good for Trump. The issue thus moves from his boorish "look at that face" (that Fiorina initially and skillfully exploited, without hyperbole) now to a different arena -- political correctness, a battleground Trump likes. Look for Trump to go after her, possibly her record at Lucent, and certainly Hewlett-Packard's firing of Fiorina and her golden parachute. He paved the way days ago with his attack on CEO compensation.
Ben Carson -- if he has proper counsel -- could hit a home run tomorrow. That's because Carson could access an entire repertoire on virtue and temperament that, by implication, would indict Trump. It is unclear whether Carson can walk through the mine fields to mount an implicit nuanced attack on Trump that is almost stealth, yet devastating. Carson truly could pursue, dare we say it, a surgical attack, without Trump knowing what hit him.
Now, as the candidates seem to gang up on Trump, they appear to be part of The Establishment and thus reinforce Trump's contention that he is the unique antidote to the status quo, and thus being bullied by (conservative Republican) Mexican rapists on the debate stage.
What about the overall, umbrella -- generic -- hit on Trump, that he is not really a Republican or a conservative? The Trump base does not care. Nor do many voters still open to him, as he becomes increasingly socially acceptable among the Republican electorate. The higher he polls, the more other voters are drawn. Voters are drawn to his perceived authenticity and independence. Beltway conservatives and the Consultant Class and ad creators fail to recognize that his appeal is personal. Trump is high on what pollsters would call "the leadership dimension." Conservative 'leaders' in Washington don't get this.
Nor do they understand just how tired the conservative base is -- when it comes to political correctness and pandering. They don't like anyone talking down to them, telling them how to vote, or what they don't know about Trump.
Yet, here comes the Club for Growth, a conservative organization inclined toward supply side economics and tax cuts, with two new television spots.
The Club for Growth has bought $1 million in television ads to run in Iowa, big money for that state. They are using Rand Paul themes -- criticizing Trump for supporting Wall Street bailouts and abusing eminent domain. Few voters understand eminent domain or have heard of the Kelo decision; the ad, which reeks of "mudslinging," ends with calling Trump "just another politician." But Trump has inoculated himself awhile back by suggesting he is a "great" businessman who uses all legal means provided by government to enrich himself. Plus, he wants to remove tax breaks for hedge fund managers, and he is taking on compliant corporate boards who compensate CEOs excessively.
Another Club for Growth ad shows Trump saying in 2004: "In many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat." They run the statement twice, as if it's a revelation and the viewer needs to see it again. (Trump always has compared himself to former Democrat Ronald Reagan.) Worse, the announcer says, "He's playing us for chumps. Just another politician." The ad copy is all wrong. You don't insult the Trump base by calling these voters "chumps." And, whatever else you can say about Trump, he is not "just another politician." Above all, a voter does not want to be told he or she is a "chump."
These ads will be seen by voters as funded by Wall Street and Big Business, maybe even evil hedge funds. Trump may well bring up the ads in the debate to inoculate and pre-empt.
There are ways to get at Trump's vulnerabilities, but they don't involve this sort of formula negative ad, lacking credibility and technique, and a script that is dead on arrival. An entirely different approach and mode might have worked, but such an ad would have required strategy and thinking, hard work and production values, and a real script. And maybe seem like it was created in Iowa, not Manhattan.