GOP Debate Prep

Republican presidential candidates from left, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul take the stage fo
Republican presidential candidates from left, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. Republicans are steeling themselves for a long period of deep uncertainty following a raucous first debate of the 2016 campaign for president, with no signs this past week’s Fox News face-off will winnow their wide-open field of White House hopefuls anytime soon. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The second debate of the Republican nomination race is fast approaching, so in preparation I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the entire GOP field once again. First, though, a word about the debates themselves.

The host of the second debates is CNN, who got shamed into changing their rules for who will appear on the main stage (so as not to exclude Carly Fiorina). Everyone seems to have agreed Carly "won" the first debate, despite her not even being in the prime-time event. This "win" was always a bit overstated, which I'll get to in a moment, but what it means is that there will be 11 people on the main stage this time around.

That's a lot of people, and when you divide it up it means only a few minutes of microphone time for each candidate. My guess is that future debate hosts are going to be looking for ways to even further limit the participants, in order to give those who really seem to have a chance much more time to make their case. The first thing likely to happen will be the elimination of the "kids' table" debates altogether. If candidates aren't in the top ranks by now, there really isn't a whole lot of reason to provide them with free airtime. "But what about Carly's rise?" some might ask -- again, I'll get to that in a moment. I should also add I'm not predicting what I would like to see happen here, I'm attempting to predict what is likely to happen. And the first thing to get jettisoned will be the afternoon debates between candidates struggling to pull more than a single percent in the polls.

The second round of limitations will be to draw the line for who gets onstage a little tighter. Right now it's relative -- if a candidate is in the top 10 slots in polling, they get to debate. But sooner or later the debate hosts are going to draw a much more absolute line. If, for instance, CNN were to limit Wednesday's main debate to "those candidates polling above five percent," this would currently limit the field to only five candidates. If they were a little more generous and drew the line at four percent, it would mean only eight candidates would be on stage. Look for a future host network to set a hard dividing line of this type.

But for now, we've still got a crowded field, so let's take a look at each candidates' chances and possible strategy. I'm using loose groups to define them here, based on their average national polling (from Real Clear Politics), and listing them from bottom to top.

The Kids' Table

Rick Perry has dropped out, so he won't be appearing at all Wednesday night. Oops!

Jim Gilmore didn't satisfy all of the conditions for a serious candidate (like having a paid staffer in all the early-voting states, for instance), so he won't be appearing Wednesday either. No real loss there.

Keeping Gilmore company in the "Why are these people still running?" category are George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, and Rick Santorum. All of these campaigns have flatlined (they're all currently polling at or below one percent), and should be considered beyond hope. Santorum didn't even bother to jump into the middle of the recent gay marriage/county clerk drama, when the last time he ran he definitely would have been all over that one. The only candidate in this group who even seems to have a strategy of making it out of the basement in the polling (call it "attempting to follow in Carly Fiorina's footsteps") is Bobby Jindal.

For the past few weeks, Jindal has gone all-in on a "hit Trump as hard as possible" strategy. This has provided some amusing moments (comparing Trump and "winning" to Charlie Sheen melting down, for instance), but so far it has not provided Jindal with any reaction at all from Republican voters. Look for Jindal to be as savage as he can manage in the undercard debate, made easier by the fact that Trump won't be in the room to answer him back. This effort will likely fail, but at least Jindal's got some sort of strategy, which is more than Santorum, Pataki, and Graham can say.

The one interesting thing about the undercard is that there will only be four people on stage -- a much better ratio for getting to speak more than a few minutes. The kids' table participants might just get more screen time than most of people in the main event. Of course, if nobody's watching, that might not turn out to be any sort of advantage at all. But hey, it worked for Carly, right?

Relieved to Be on the Big Stage

The three candidates at the bottom of the main stage's polling -- John Kasich, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie -- are all quite likely to be relieved they made the cut this time. They're all in danger of slipping out of the criteria for future debates though.

Chris Christie is doing the worst of this bunch, polling at a dismal 2.2 percent. He was a very early favorite in the field, but that was many moons ago. These days, his poll numbers are going nowhere. He has promised both an entertaining and feisty performance Wednesday night, where he'll likely attack Donald Trump with his usual blunt style. Christie has two problems with this strategy, though. He was one of only two candidates in the first debate (the other was Rand Paul) to take on Trump directly, and it didn't do him one bit of good afterwards in the polls. Plus, his entire political persona is pretty close to Trump's in the first place (what might be called "shouty and belligerent"), and the voters have already apparently decided they'd prefer Trump shouting and being belligerent to Christie -- which is not likely to change.

Rand Paul was the other candidate to directly challenge Trump last time, and his ratings have been gradually falling ever since. He's currently polling at 3.6 percent, down from 4.5 percent before the first debate. Paul could either replay his "attack Trump" strategy from last time or sit back and let others try the same thing on Wednesday, but it's likely that neither strategy is going to do Paul much good. One way or another, Paul will likely be less prominent during the second debate.

John Kasich was seen as a minor winner in the last debate, but his numbers were already slightly edging up before the debate even happened. Unfortunately for Kasich, his poll numbers topped out at five percent, and have since fallen back to 3.6 percent, tied with Paul. Kasich's strategy is twofold, at this point. He's trying to move into the "safe establishment guy" position that used to be held by Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Secondly, he hails from Ohio, which will be a crucial battleground state next year. Unless he captures lightning, however, he seems to be setting himself up to be at the top of everyone else's "possible vice presidential candidates" list.

Bottom of the Pack

There are three candidates who are still -- barely -- seen as having an actual shot at winning, but they're all currently polling below five percent, so perhaps that's being generous. Things could change, however, for this group (either way, actually).

At the bottom of this lower group is Mike Huckabee, who fell quite a bit after the first debate (from 6.8 percent down to his current 4.0 percent), but whose poll numbers have at least flattened out since then. As always, Huckabee is driving hard for the evangelical vote, but they seem to currently be much more enamored of Ben Carson. If anyone goes after Carson hard on Wednesday night, it will likely be Huckabee, since they're both really fishing in the same pond of potential voters.

Next is Scott Walker, and boy, how the mighty have fallen in his case. Walker was actually leading the entire pack a few months back, but his lackluster and confused campaigning has hit his poll numbers hard. Walker -- on every issue except how much he hates unions -- has tried to straddle every fence he can find. He tries to spout vague language that can be read either way whenever he's asked about any issue, and then the next day he seems to reverse himself. Walker has seen his poll numbers fall further and faster than any other candidate in the field (he was over 10 percent not that long ago, and he's now only managing a paltry 4.2 percent), so he must be getting pretty desperate. Who knows what he'll try on Wednesday? He's got to get his name in the headlines somehow, and at this point he has little left to lose, so he may provide some fireworks.

And finally, Carly Fiorina. Fiorina's supposed rise in the polling has been vastly overstated by just about everyone. It is true, she was universally seen as the "winner" of the first debate. She even got a clip of her performance played during the main debate. She certainly got a lot more media attention. And she browbeat CNN into including her on Wednesday. But when you look at the actual numbers, Fiorina isn't doing as well as all the hype would have you believe. Before the first debate, she was polling at barely one percent. She did get the most dramatic and immediate "bump" from the first debate, and rose quickly to 6.3 percent -- impressive enough, in this field. But since then, she's fallen back to 4.4 percent, and her trendline is gradually down right now.

Two things bear keeping in mind about Fiorina, heading into the next debate. The first is that she's been one of Trump's biggest critics. Look for her to snarkily attack Trump, and look for Trump to hit back hard on her abysmal corporate leadership history. The second thing worth considering with Fiorina is that she might also be very high on the list of possible veeps for other candidates -- especially if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. The vice presidential campaign role is traditionally to be the attack dog, and nobody really does this sort of thing better than Carly, at least not so far. She's got that whole sneering contempt thing down pat, really. It will indeed be interesting to see her and Trump interact directly this time around, that's for sure. But keep in mind, she's still only in sixth place overall and she's below five percent support. If she does get another poll bump from the second debate, she might vault into the ranks of those with a real shot, but so far she hasn't gotten there yet, no matter what the pundits say.

Waiting for Trump to Fall

We now come to the top of the pack -- the group of candidates who are waiting in the wings, desperately wishing for Donald Trump to fall flat on his face sooner or later. These three still have an excellent chance to step in and pick up the pieces, should that ever actually come to pass. There are currently three candidates polling between five and 10 percent: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush.

Marco Rubio seems to be doing a good job of standing in the shadows. He hasn't exactly caught fire in any way, but then again he hasn't crashed and burned either (as Walker has, for example). He's currently polling at 5.8 percent, with a pretty flat trendline (he's been falling ever so slightly of late, but not nearly as bad as some other candidates). Rubio will likely not engage directly with Trump on Wednesday, and will likely continue his attempt to appeal to serious-minded (even "wonky") Republican voters. Look for deep dives into positions and policy from Rubio in the debate, but probably not any fireworks.

Ted Cruz has been following the most interesting strategy of all the Republicans since the first debate. He's now officially Donald Trump's "coat holder." Cruz deferentially supports Trump in all he does and says, and has even taken to appearing on the same stage as Trump in public. This has indeed helped his poll numbers, although not anywhere near as Trump's dramatic rise. Cruz was polling at 5.5 percent before the last debate, and he's up to 7.0 percent now. Even this modest rise is notable, since only four GOP candidates have really seen any rise at all. Cruz is obviously hoping that sucking up to Trump now might pay off later, if Trump ever does spectacularly detonate (leaving Cruz to sweep up all of Trump's support in the aftermath). Cruz will almost assuredly not attack Trump (although he could possibly attack Carson) on Wednesday, and instead will likely try to focus Republican voters' anger on the Republican-led Congress. Cruz is spoiling for another government showdown, and he'll likely use his time Wednesday night to make his case for doing so (hint: "Planned Parenthood" will figure prominently).

Which brings us to Jeb Bush. Now, Jeb hasn't fallen quite as spectacularly as Scott Walker, but that's not really saying much of anything, at this point. Bush's psychological fall is bigger than his fall in absolute poll numbers. Bush was already sinking in the polls before the last debate (down to 11.8 percent), and his numbers have continued their downward trajectory (Bush is now at only 8.2 percent). Bush, however, used to be leading the pack, and he's now struggling to stay in third place. That's a big step down, folks.

In the previous debate, Bush tried to essentially ignore Trump. Like all of the Republican establishment, Bush figured Trump was a shooting star that would soon burn out on his own, and therefore Bush didn't need to even get involved -- he could safely stay above the fray and remain the favorite candidate not named Trump. This is no longer an option for Bush, in the second debate. He cannot afford to continue ignoring Trump, and he's been much more willing to challenge Trump out on the campaign trail. However, Bush doesn't seem to have much of an inner attack dog to draw upon -- at least not so far. Bush almost has to directly engage with Trump this time around, but Trump might very easily run rings around Bush in response. If Bush's numbers continue to sink after the second debate, and he slips to fourth or fifth place, his donors are going to start bailing on his campaign -- that's my guess, at any rate. Look for Bush to take his best shot at Trump, but Bush's best shot might be woefully inadequate, in the end.

The Frontrunners

Astonishingly, in a field of 16 candidates, only two are now polling in double digits. That's a pretty all-around weak field, in general. Every experienced Republican has almost no voter support, and neither of the top two have any experience at all in politics -- which says something about the state of the Republican Party. This Wednesday night, however, Ben Carson and Donald Trump are doing so well that they'll likely only be playing defense against attacks from wannabe frontrunners (or, in Bush's and Walker's cases, "used-to-bes").

Ben Carson's rise has been what I would call quietly spectacular since the first debate. He has moved his poll average from 5.8 percent to a whopping 16.8 percent -- a bigger absolute rise than any other candidate, including Trump. Nobody has any clear answer why Carson's doing so well recently, but it could be a combination of evangelicals settling on their preferred candidate (sorry, Huckabee) and Carson's personality being so antithetical to Trump's. Carson is restrained in speaking -- even sleepy, at times. He isn't a big fan of personally attacking other candidates. He makes even extreme positions sound reasonable. And, so far, Carson has been lucky because with everyone else in the field aiming at Trump, nobody's even bothered attacking Carson on anything. This could change Wednesday night. Attacking Carson might be seen as a lot easier than attacking Trump, for other candidates struggling to break out. Poaching Carson's voter support might look a lot easier than stealing Trump's supporters away, in other words.

Which brings us to the far-and-away leader of the Republican pack: The Donald. At this point, Trump is riding a wave that continues to grow bigger, defying all predictions. Trump doesn't have to make a big splash at the debate, but then he always makes a big splash wherever he goes. Last time around it was little noticed that Trump did keep to his debate plan -- not instigating attacks against others, but instead merely "counterpunching." He will likely do the same thing later this week -- only responding to direct attacks rather than going after anyone without provocation.

Trump is sitting on a monstrous amount of voter support, roughly double what even Ben Carson's been getting. He's over 30 percent in the polls, and still climbing. He knows that if this continues, he may soon start to become almost inevitable as the Republican nominee. Plus, he still seems to be having a whale of a lot of fun beating all the other Republicans at their own game.

Trump will be playing defense on Wednesday, but that certainly doesn't mean he will be boring in any way. His counterpunches are often remembered more than the punches others throw at him, and I fully expect that to be the case in the second debate as well. Trump's biggest challenge will probably be from the debate moderators themselves rather than the other candidates, in fact.

Whatever happens Wednesday night, one thing that's almost a surety is that Donald Trump will again claim the next day that he was responsible for another record-breaking night of television ratings. And he'll be right about that, too. Love him or hate him, America's fascination with Trump certainly isn't over yet.

 

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