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Eye On Candidates
September 16, 2015

Previewing the CNN Debate

Eleven Republican candidates will face off tonight in the main debate on CNN, and four more who didn’t qualify for the prime-time event will be featured in the early “undercard” debate. There’s no shortage of advice for the candidates, suggestions on what to look for, or assessments of what they need to do to win.

Politico suggests that the candidate with the biggest stake in tonight’s debate is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:

Scott Walker’s last best chance

Scott Walker needs to reassure his supporters and his donors. And Wednesday’s debate might be his last chance….

Indeed, there is perhaps no one in the Republican field under greater pressure than Walker, who has suffered a miserable fall since entering this contest and being immediately branded a pack leader.

Walker’s unremarkable showing in the first debate left even his own team disappointed. And his decline in the polls predictably followed. In the nine national polls conducted immediately preceding the first debate, Walker averaged over 11 percent. In the seven surveys conducted since, Walker’s average score dropped below 5 percent.

The article offers some information on what Walker’s team has apparently focused on from his last performance and what he needs to do tonight:

He won’t stop talking before his time is up, as he did at that first debate – a decision that left some of his top backers scratching their heads. He will be more assertive, according to people who have been briefed. And he won’t just answer the moderators’ questions but instead pivot to his personal story….

“He needs to reframe his brand as ‘the underdog who overcomes,’” said Bruce Haynes, the president of the political consulting firm Purple Strategies. “That's the key challenge for Walker -- to move the starting line back to where he finds himself today and reframe what is expected of him going forward, to change the frame from that of being a descendent candidate to an ascendant candidate."

Another Politico article raises the possibility that businesswoman Carly Fiorina may have the most to gain tonight:

Carly Fiorina's make-or-break moment has arrived.

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO and only female Republican candidate scrapped her way onto the prime-time stage in Wednesday night's debate, and all eyes will be on her as she tries to prove she not only deserves that spot but can also go mano a mano with Donald Trump, whose insults have so far only boosted her momentum….

"She's reasonably well-positioned right now because everyone is going to be watching the interaction between her and Trump — in particular, Trump, if he tries to lay a hand on her, that's going to redound to her advantage," added [Iowa lawyer and prominent Republican Doug] Gross, who says that if Fiorina handles the situation with both strength and control, "it's going to help her pretty significantly."

The New York Times offers an overview of all 11 candidates in the main event and what they need to do tonight. Here’s its thoughts on the top three candidates according to most polls:

Donald Trump

He leads in every national and early-voting-state poll, and the traditional rules of political gravity have yet to apply to him. But whether he can transform himself from summer curiosity to enduring political phenomenon will be, in part, determined by how he holds up over what will become monthly debates. And while his willingness to speak his mind has won him supporters, he must be careful that his candor does not turn into hostility if he is lured into direct confrontation with other candidates, and he must avoid anything that comes across as bullying Mrs. Fiorina, who will be the only female candidate on the stage.

Ben Carson

Republican voters liked what they saw from Mr. Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon, in the first debate in Cleveland, and his poll numbers have been growing ever since. Now that he is among the leading candidates, he is sure to get more scrutiny from the moderators, and perhaps from his Republican rivals. Conservatives have shown an appetite for outsiders in this campaign, but Mr. Carson, who has no government experience, will have to prove he is presidential material. That means consistent and informed answers when policy questions come his way.

Jeb Bush

Polling in single digits and pushing back against attacks from Mr. Trump is not, to put it mildly, where Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida, envisioned his campaign headed into the nominating contests. He will need to prove both to his donors and to rank-and-file primary voters that he has the mettle to take on Mr. Trump and represent a party that is hungry for bold-bordering-on-belligerent leadership. There are, of course, more debates to come. But there is intense pressure on Mr. Bush to reverse his slide.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz has his own article along similar lines, and he asks a few key questions about some of the other candidates:

Can Ohio Gov. John Kasich continue to be a distinctive presence — conservative and pragmatic at the same time? Can Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) translate knowledge on the issues into a performance that will bring him more political support?

Who can consolidate conservative evangelicals — Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee? Their minuet in Kentucky last week on the day Kim Davis was released from jail shows the enmity that exists between them.

Don’t forget about the other two who will be on stage — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)? They tangled in Cleveland and could again, but does either gain by going after the other?

Another Washington Post article raises the question of whether the four candidates participating in the early debate because of poor polling have already lost the evening just by being relegated to the non-prime time event:

…[U]nlike a similar event last month in Cleveland, this debate won’t even offer a chance to make a first impression.

In that debate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina introduced herself with a sharp and steady performance, and she got moved up to the main event this time. But for the rest, this is a repeat. TV debate No. 2….

Despite the long odds, each candidate in the early event seems to be hoping and preparing for a Fiorina-like breakout following the debate, and expect the smaller field to represent an opportunity for them:

“In an odd way, it might actually be better for Senator [Rick] Santorum to be center stage in the early debate than to be a Chris Christie or a John Kasich . . . on the wings of the second debate,” said Matt Beynon, a spokesman for Santorum, putting the best face on things. “Where Senator Santorum might have 20 to 25 minutes to talk, those folks — from [Santorum’s] experience four years ago, they’re really only going to have four or five minutes to talk.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s team thinks someone will take advantage of the evening, and obviously hopes it’s Jindal:

Like the last debate, this next debate is likely to reshuffle the deck,” Kyle Plotkin, a spokesman for Jindal, said in an e-mail. “Expect at least one breakout appearance from the undercard debate.”

Also on stage in the early debate will be South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore did not qualify for the early event after failing to reach 1 percent in any national poll.

While Fiorina’s rise in media attention and the polls occurred relatively quickly following her first debate performance, it took several weeks for Carson’s debate performance to translate into significant polling gains. So whatever the instant analysis is tomorrow morning, it’s worth remembering that there will likely be additional storylines that take at least a couple of weeks to become known.