GOP Debate Primer
Tonight the Republicans are fielding their best and brightest (oh god) for a no-holds-barred second round of old-fashioned American debate. Currently, 15 candidates are seeking the Republican nomination. Tonight's debate will feature only those ranking in the top 11 in the national polls. The quantity of debaters ensures that there's a candidate for everyone on the stage tonight. We'll get to see the full spectrum of GOP thinking, ranging from the quivering jowls of Chris Christie's La Cosa Nostra mentality through the bible-thumping rhetoric of Rand Paul's deep south upbringing.
Tonight's debate will clock in at 2 hours and 45 minutes - a full 45 minutes longer than the Fox News debate. We should expect each candidate to have about 10 minutes worth of air-time, if things were to progress in an equitable manner. In all likelihood the big stars will have more to say. So, in order of national standing, let's have a look at our candidates and what's on the line for them tonight.
While it's both easy and fashionable to dump on Trump, there's no denying that he has a commanding lead in the primary polling. Nationally, Trump is coming in at 27% among likely Republican voters, with his nearest competition, Ben Carson, coming in with 23%. The next closest candidate behind Carson (Jeb Bush) has got only 6% of the vote.
Donald Trump has been a huge surprise to mainstream media mostly because he doesn't possess the vulnerabilities of a normal candidate. When he says something awful or offensive it only serves to strengthen him, when similar remarks would leave a more "legitimate" candidate scarred. Remember when Mitt Romney commented on those 47% of people who would never vote for him because they need the entitlements he wants to cut? That single comment did more damage to Romney's election efforts than any other single remark. It reverberated through social media and Romney lost a lot of ground because of it.
But Trump? Trump can tell you that Mexicans are rapists, that poor people are losers and haters, that Megyn Kelley must have been on her period in the last debate, and Trump only grows stronger! So what is Trump's weakness? What is it going to take to knock him off the top of the charts?
It's my continuing belief that the body of the Republican electorate will eventually come around to the realization that Trump lacks a Presidential quality. He lacks the necessary gravitas and poise to be our country's leader. It's Trump's biggest weakness in this debate, because on the one hand his followers expect him to keep putting on a show, keep saying that outrageous shit that he says so well; but on the other hand, the more he says it, the less presidential he seems.
Retired Neurosurgeon Ben Carson. That's the title that he gets in the media. It sounds respectable. But make no mistake: Carson is the most dangerous man on the Republican ticket, and I am frankly far more afraid of him becoming president than Donald Trump.
Carson has been surging in the polls because he's got a very calm, very dignified presentation. He came off in the first debate as a bit of a bumbling outsider - but not on purpose. The truth is, he is a bumbling outsider. He's no politician, no real leader. What people liked about Carson in the first debate is that he looked authentic, which is incredibly refreshing in the modern age of politics. In a lot of ways, it's the same energy that is fueling Bernie Sanders (and Trump) - the sense that a candidate isn't trying to sell you some carefully workshopped Bullshit that is calculated to bring in the most votes.
But if you listen to what Carson says, it's terrifying. He's anti-gay, pro-torture, ultra-religious, pro-life, anti-weed (!!), and has absolutely no fucking clue what's going on in the broader world.
This is Carson's biggest weakness: his lack of real experience about politics. It's interesting to see that Carson, like Trump, is also benefitting from his weakness. People like that he's not this career politician. However, this leaves him vulnerable to attacks from more legitimate candidates, such as good old #3: Jeb Bush.
We all know Jeb's basic credentials: he's a Bush. He was the governor of Florida. He represents the Republican establishment, and before Trump appeared on stage he was widely considered to be the de facto front-runner for the nomination. But Bush withered before the assault of Donald Trump, possessing now less than a quarter the number of Trump's supporters!
Bush was like some kid from Nebraska coming off the farm to a battlefield in Vietnam, recoiling at the horror of a grizzled and insane sergeant massacring a village of natives. Slack-jawed and in disbelief at the carnage being wrought by Donald Trump, Bush just seemed caught flat-footed in the last debate. Trump's over there mowing down innocents on fully automatic, and Bush is pushing his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose, raising his finger into the air, "Well, actually....".
And Republicans don't like eggheads. They like swinging dicks. Bush needs to start swinging his dick around if he's going to have any change at getting back in this race. He needs to be ruthless against both Trump and Carson for not having the chops to run the country. He needs to impress upon the American public that it would be a fucking awful decision to elect either of these two. But how he does that, exactly? I can't really say. Problem for Bush is, I don't think he or his team can say either.
Mike "Frank Underwood" Huckabee is a close contender behind Bush, also holding a 6% place in the polling. Huckabee's been around the block a few times. He's been a reasonably effective Southern Governor who has a loyal following based on his somewhat hardline religious beliefs.
Huckabee's greatest strength is that he's a true believer and that a lot of people in the Republican party are 100% on board with that. He's also a great speaker, very forceful and eloquent, and has the appropriate gravitas to hold the highest office. He's certainly a legitimate candidate when compared with Trump and Carson.
But his biggest weakness is that his hardline views won't resonate with the parts of the Republican party that are less interested in conservative social values than they are in conservative economic policies. Unless Huckabee can make major inroads with the top 1%-type voters, and those who wish they were in the top 1%, then I don't see him moving beyond his current position.
Ted Cruz sounds a little bit like Kermit the Frog when he speaks, and I pay just about as much attention to the words coming out of his mouth. Surprisingly, Cruz is currently sitting in 3rd place in the Iowa polling. This means that if Trump and Carson flame out, then Cruz could be coming up as the first winner in the race for the nomination.
The scuttlebutt on Cruz is that he's a very calculating individual. He's made a real name for himself by disrupting the Republican congressional leadership team, leading a coalition of conservatives to shut down the government and generally making John Boehner's life difficult.
Cruz's big weakness is that he's never actually governed anything. Thankfully, Republicans don't seem to be very impressed by "accomplishments" so far in the race. Cruz's goal for tonight's debate is likely to continue to shore up his base and to bide his time. As long he makes no unforced errors, he could be in a good situation to take Iowa if his other opponents focus on taking out Trump and Carson.
Scott Walker's got a do-or-die night ahead of him. He's sinking the polls and his latest desperate bid for attention hasn't gotten him any traction. Walker made big news governing a blue state - Wisconsin - when he managed to completely fuck over unionized labor in the state. His latest message has been that when you elect him president, he'll fuck over unions all across America!
That's just not what Americans want to hear, but you can bet that Walker's going to do a lot of talking about his Wisconsin record tonight. His strength is that he's got a record to run. His weakness is that no one cares. If Walker can make a good case that he's done a good job for Wisconsin, then maybe voters will listen. Probably not though.
Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, has got absolutely nothing to say that some other candidate hasn't also said. He's calm, he's calculating, he's establishment, and he's got a touch of something from south of the border in his blood. A hispanic candidate could go a long way in the general election to bringing that critical voting segment into the Republican party, but I don't see him getting there without something really surprising happening.
Rubio's debate performance was perfectly fine in round 1, but his biggest weakness continues to be his relatively junior status and the fact that his platforms are not really any different from his more experienced opponents.
Fiorina's biggest credential: she's a woman in a sea of old white men. Let's make no mistakes on this front. She's been an effective CEO at Hewlitt Packard, but that's not what's got a growing base of supporters excited. The Republicans have a female candidate that passes the smell test and more than anyone on the stage tonight, Fiorina's got something to prove.
Her biggest strength tonight is that everyone wants to hear what she has to say. She's going to bring a feminine energy to the stage and a sharp mind. This is her moment to shine and I expect that a good performance here will push her way up in the polls.
Her biggest weaknesses: she's relatively unknown. She's a woman running for the nomination of a party that absolutely demonizes Hillary Clinton for the sin of being a woman. She's got to attack Trump, to confront him on his misogyny, and that's a not a fight she's going to leave without some of her own blood on her shirt. I'm most excited to see what she brings to the table tonight.
As the governor of Ohio, Kasich has developed a pretty excellent economic track-record. Whether that is due to his own governance or due to broader economic shifts throughout the country - well, that's not really the point. Kasich is taking credit for Ohio's successes and he's doing it in a convincing way. He comes off as an extremely sane candidate with a lot of moderate views.
I think Kasich's weakness is that his moderate positions aren't exciting enough to rally any substantial portion of the Republican religious and conservative base. Kasich has a very high electability in the general election and so I don't count him out even though he's towards the back of the pack for now. I expect a strong accomplishments-focused debate performance from him, but I also expect the media to largely ignore him after the fact.
The Senator from Kentucky has made a name for himself as a champion of conservative christian values. The problem is that so have 3 or 4 other candidates on the stage. His pissing match with Chris Christie in the last debate was entertaining, but this looks like the two runtiest dogs in the pack fighting over the last scraps.
My expectation is that Paul is going to make very little headway in this debate, and will probably end his campaign in the coming weeks. It's only a matter of time before he realizes that he's got the same message as Huckabee and Cruz but less support.
As the governor of New Jersey, a blue state, Christie has proven an electability. He's got chops as a US attorney and has government experience. He's dropped a lot of weight for this run. He may have once been a legitimate candidate, but the accusations of corruption that surfaced last year have done their damage.
Long story short, Christie was accused of bullying democratic opponents in New Jersey by doing things such as shutting down bridges that lead into their cities, cutting funding for their projects, things like that. Nothing too exciting or too criminal, but enough that if Christie ever floated to the top of the Republican pack, there would be a lot of ammunition to use against him.
Well, my coffee's about run dry. Enjoy tonight's show!