As several GOP candidates jockey for late bumps in national polls that might put them on the debate stage next week in Cleveland, the candidates who are certain to make the cut are preparing for the event and hoping to at least meet and hopefully exceed expectations. The Politico Caucus has some advice for one frontrunner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on how to deal with the candidate currently leading in the polls, businessman Donald Trump:
When Jeb Bush and Donald Trump share a debate stage next week, Bush needs to ignore the real estate mogul at all costs — and if that fails, laugh him off.
That’s the advice given by more than half of the POLITICO Caucus, our weekly, bipartisan survey of the top activists, operatives and strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“The old maxim applies: Never wrestle with a pig,” counseled a New Hampshire Republican. “You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
That may be easier said than done – many of the Iowa and New Hampshire political insiders that make up the Politico Caucus expect Trump to target Bush. But they also expect the focus on Trump will aid Bush by limiting the opportunities for other candidates to garner attention for their own campaigns:
Many Republicans expect Trump will zero in on Bush in the debate — and how Bush responds could go a long way toward shaping perceptions about his cool under fire. Bush has not tussled as frequently or as heatedly with Trump as other GOP candidates have, and several insiders advised that the longer the focus is on Trump’s battles with the others, the better it is for Bush to quietly consolidate support while others struggle to break through.
“With Trump being Trump he will be the news of the debate 24/7 and no one else will break through,” a New Hampshire Republican said. “This helps Bush by keeping anyone else down in the pack.”
“Donald Who? Allow others to seek media attention with attacks on Trump. Bush needs to be above the fray, because, frankly, he IS above the fray,” said a New Hampshire Democrat….
There is also an expectation that Bush will benefit by comparisons to Trump:
“Jeb Bush needs to introduce himself as a serious leader for serious times to a large and curious audience,” said an Iowa Republican. “I hope he stands next to Trump on stage. The comparison in knowledge, depth, and quality will be apparent in the first 15 minutes.”
The insiders interviewed said Bush and Trump have the “most to prove” about themselves on stage, but also noted that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has a lot riding on the debate as well:
Among both Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came in third on the list of candidates who have the most to prove at the first debate. Walker leads the polls in Iowa, but critics have questioned whether his grasp of policy is enough for the national stage.
“As the Iowa front-runner and legitimate first tier candidate, Scott Walker will get his first real turn on the big stage,” an Iowa Republican said. “To date, he’s turned in uneven performances on substance. His speeches are largely canned, memorized talking points. His shifting positions on issues create huge potential land mines with the base. Several candidates put Iowa in the must-win column, and for them, he’ll be a prime target.”
“Trump is probably gonna Trump, so nothing to prove there. Bush is probably experienced enough that he doesn’t really have that much to prove. I picked Walker because he’s considered a top tier candidate, and leader in Iowa, so he needs to prove he’s able to handle himself and the questions in on a national stage,” a nonpartisan Iowan said.
While unsolicited advice and expectations are tossed around in public, the candidates themselves are preparing for the debate. Politico this morning has another story focused on how the different contenders are getting ready for next Thursday’s debate.
After a week mostly away from the campaign trail, Jeb Bush will hunker down with top advisers for what aides described as “intense debate preparation” starting this weekend in Miami.
Until now, his debate prep sessions have consisted of policy briefings and heavy reading, according to aides close to the process.
The focus of this weekend’s sessions will be helping Bush, who has already done dozens of town halls, adjust to the debate format — paring down his deep policy knowledge into sharper, cleaner responses that fit the first debate’s 90-second time limit.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who appears to be one of three contenders for the final two spots on the stage, will be trying to overcome his poor 2012 debate performances:
Perry faltered badly in debates during the 2012 cycle, squandering a big lead in polls. After a campaign-killing gaffe in which he couldn’t remember the federal departments he planned to close, he has spent the better part of the past three years meeting with policy experts, downloading information and preparing for another turn onstage and a shot at redemption.
Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio seem to have received advice similar to Bush regarding Trump, and say they have little intention of mixing it up onstage with the bombastic businessman:
Trump has also been going after Walker of late; but during a campaign stop in Philadelphia Tuesday, Walker told reporters he had no intention of engaging with Trump onstage.
“Donald Trump and any other candidates can speak for themselves,” Walker said. “I’m just going to tell people what I’m for. So it doesn’t matter to me whether he’s on the attack or not. I’m going to stay focused on talking to people about what I’m for … he and everybody else can do what they want.”
Similarly, Marco Rubio, also thought to be among the top contenders to win the nomination next year, has no intention of engaging with Trump.
The first GOP debate is less than a week away, and the presence of Trump is clearly on the minds of many. How they respond to him, or don’t respond, could be key to how they are perceived after the debate.