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Eye On Candidates
October 28, 2015

What to Look for in 3rd Republican Debate Tonight

Tonight will be the third debate featuring 14 of the 15 Republicans running for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Tonight’s event will once again include a prime-time debate with the 10 candidates polling at or above 2.5 percent in national polls and an earlier “undercard” with the four who fall short of that measure but still register at 1 percent or better in at least one national poll. Only former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore didn’t make the cut for either event.

As with previous debates, there are several articles this morning with advice for candidates and viewers alike. The New York Times published this morning an interview with one of their own political correspondents that provides some insights:

What to Look for in the Republican Debate

Q. What is the state of the Republican race going into the debate?

A. It does feel like a number of candidates face a new level of urgency. The most obvious one is Donald Trump. He’s been dominating this race both in terms of his polling and in terms of the coverage.

He’s now lost his lead in Iowa. And he appears to be slipping nationally. What does this mean for somebody whose entire political life and identity is wrapped up in him being a winner? How does he respond when he’s not winning?

Q. Ben Carson is not a forceful debater, but he’s suddenly on top of the polls. What are you watching for with Carson?

A. How does he respond to attacks? Now that he’s the top dog, the moderators are going to try to prompt Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and perhaps others into attacking him. How does he counter? He upended conventional wisdom in the first two debates, he was kind of a laconic presence, but people didn’t really care. Can he do that again? Or is he going to actually have to stand up for himself?...

Q. Carly Fiorina came out of one debate as the big story. She seems like she’s receded since — why is that?

A. One of the biggest surprises to me was that she didn’t have a second act. The second that she got into that second debate, the second they knew there was going to be an extra lectern up there for her, her staff knew that she had it in her to have a strong debate. Why weren’t they thinking about, “How can we capitalize on this?” And to me there was no plan. There was nothing. It was just — she had a good debate. Period. The end.

Q. A lot of readers are especially interested in Chris Christie, even though he hasn’t registered powerfully in the polls. What are you looking for from Christie?

A. We all kind of knew going into the campaign that there was going to be a brash, swaggering, tell-it-like-it-is candidate from the tristate area. We just didn’t know it was going to be Donald Trump, not Chris Christie. So Trump has stolen the Christie persona in this race. So this is a debate where Christie needs to come out and show that if you like the Trump swagger, but you have concerns about the Trump electability, I can be your guy.

Many eyes are likely to be on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to see how well he does this evening. The Washington Post has this observation:

The stakes in tonight’s debate are as high for Jeb Bush as anyone else. A week after his campaign’s major downsizing, I’m hearing from some already-nervous Bush donors that they will close their checkbooks if the ex-Florida governor doesn’t have a breakout moment. Because he’s slipped in the polls, Jeb’s podium will move further from center stage toward the wings. This makes his mission of standing out even harder….

If Jeb does better in tonight’s debate than the previous ones, this could be a good week for him. Chuck Todd will go to Florida to interview Bush on “Meet the Press” Sunday. On Monday, the campaign rolls out an e-book, built around e-mails Bush exchanged with his constituents, to try highlighting the ex-governor’s conservative Tallahassee record.

USA Today offers this regarding Bush in tonight’s debate:

Does Jeb Bush act like he wants to be there?  

Considered the front-runner before the race began, the former Florida governor now has sparked skepticism about his staying power in a contest that has been rougher than expected. At a forum in South Carolina on Saturday, he said he had “a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around and be miserable.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns of has an interesting analysis piece regarding the key rivalries and matchups in the debate tonight:

The field isn’t just one person smaller—Scott Walker dropped out shortly after another lackluster showing in the second debate—but its dynamics are finally shifting: New and consequential rivalries within the Republican primary have emerged and will be on full display in Boulder, Colo….

With the Iowa caucuses just three months away and donor money likely to dry up soon for also-rans, nearly everyone on the prime-time stage needs to perform well this time. And that means several are expected to be more aggressive than ever….

Trump vs. Carson will be one of the key matchups, of course:

Trump, in response to his eroded lead, has been attacking Carson over the past several days, and the two will be placed next to each other in the middle of the stage. The businessman who routinely touts his own high poll numbers has been paradoxically dismissive of the recent surveys showing Carson’s rise. He’s also gone after his rival as a “super-low energy” candidate and questioned whether the retired physician is equipped for the presidency.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is also likely to try to get into the mix with those two in an attempt to capture some of their supporters who are unhappy with establishment politicians:

With Carson and Trump showing staying power, Cruz is starting to draw more contrasts with them, attempting to position himself as the true conservative and anti-establishment candidate. He has called attention to his stands against Obamacare and Planned Parenthood funding, arguing that he led on these issues while his competitors didn’t.

Though Cruz says he is playing the long game, eyeing the March 1 primaries in Southern states, where he is well organized, he will use the debate to establish himself as the conservative favorite. In that way, he will not only be competing with the political outsiders, but also with Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa winner whose campaign has not gained traction this time around.

Mother Jones, hardly a sympathetic outlet for Republican candidates, suggests in a thoughtful piece that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may be poised for a big night tonight:

Will Rubio-mentum keep building? As Bush's campaign flails, Rubio is emerging as the leading establishment candidate to go up against Trump and Carson. Watch to see if Rubio can take advantage of his minisurge. If he wants to win over the establishment voters—and donors—he needs to make a strong case for himself on matters of business and economics, which are the emphasis of CNBC's debate. This is his moment to shine. Can he pull it off?

The piece also asks an interesting question regarding Carson:

Will the moderators treat Carson like a front-runner? Normally, a front-runner gets scrutiny from the moderators. Trump and Hillary Clinton have been grilled by moderators throughout the debates so far. Will the CNBC team treat Carson—who has struggled with even simple economic policy questions—like a front-runner? And will the moderators stick to their topic, or let the candidates sound off on buzzier subjects like the Benghazi hearing, Planned Parenthood, and ISIS?

Finally, a rather harsh but not easily dismissed piece in The Daily Beast by Republican strategist Rick Wilson suggests there are six legitimate candidates on the stage tonight, and nine that ought to be preparing their withdrawal speeches, including these three:

Bobby Jindal. I really like Bobby Jindal. He’s sharp as hell, a strong conservative, and a guy I’d want in a senior role in any Cabinet, but this was always a splash-and-dash name-ID building exercise. Want a guy who can dismantle Obamacare and love every second of the nerd-out it takes to do it? Jindal’s your guy. I’d advise him to make nice with Rubio, and move forward. Young smart guys, unite!...

Lindsey Graham. Running for SECDEF is hard. He’s been the one hawk in this race with a singular focus on defense and national security to the exclusion of almost anything else. Polling in 5th in his home state makes this exercise pointless. He’ll stay in until South Carolina, but he shouldn’t. If he’s smart, he’ll look at Rubio or Cruz. He’ll be a valuable surrogate when the time is right….

George Pataki. There is no rational argument for a Pataki candidacy. None. We tried electing a liberal-moderate-turned-conservative Republican governor from the Northeast once before, and Mitt Romney, for all his failings as a candidate, was 1000 times stronger as a presidential prospect than Pataki. George isn’t a bad man; he’s just not the right man. Pataki’s support is, well, thin, so he should go with Bush for his comfort, and theirs.

Calling the candidates stuck in the undercard debate “losers” (the title of Wilson’s piece is “The Nine Losers Running for President”) may seem a bit harsh, given that they are all successful and accomplished public figures, but it’s also readily defensible because few see a path to the nomination for most of them. Several others are clearly longshots as well but perhaps not so easily dismissed. Here are Wilson’s views on the two past winners of the Iowa caucuses:

Mike Huckabee. Even as a Southerner, there’s only so much corn-pone shucking and jiving about mama-and-gravy talk I can take. Ben Carson drank Huckabee’s milkshake in Iowa, the one state Huck needed to stay in the fight. Huckabee is a gifted earned media guy, but this race only has room for scenery-chewing, uber-populist, big-government Republican, and Trump is sucking up all that oxygen. He should either endorse Carson for the sake of his brand, or Trump for a longer political play.

Rick Santorum. Santorum is a guy with a narrow lane of appeal and advocacy, and his fundraising, political organization, and chances are all bottomed out near zero. Time to go, Rick. Make friends with Carson, or Cruz. They’re natural fits, and if all goes well, he might be the American Ambassador to the Holy See.

The other candidates on stage tonight that Wilson suggests ought to be packing it in include Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. While all three are mired towards the bottom of the second tier, there is at least a path for each of them to rise into the top tier – if Trump fades, Christie’s bombastic and “straight-talk” style could easily allow him to capture that support, Kasich seems well positioned to pick up establishment-oriented Republicans in the event Bush continues to slide and Rubio doesn’t capture them, and Paul could still pull together his father’s coalition from the 2008 and 2012 races.

Tonight’s debates, both the undercard and the primetime event, could be a turning point for some of the candidates on stage, with some of those turns giving candidates new hope and invigorating their chances while others will come to the realization that they simply aren’t going to be able to mount an effective campaign. Expect the field to look different in a week than it does today as a result.