Tonight’s third Republican debate will be a crucial one for a number of the candidates. Polls show Donald Trump trailing Dr. Ben Carson for the first time in Iowa; one poll from CBS/New York Times has Trump trailing Carson nationally as well.
Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) continues to lurk in the high single digits, while onetime frontrunner former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) has fallen to meet Rubio there. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) bides his time, holding statistically even with Bush and Rubio; Carly Fiorina, unable to capitalize on her second debate victory, has dropped from second or third in the race down to the lower tier again. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), Governor John Kasich (R-OH), and Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) hold on with their fingernails.
So, what do the candidates have to do tonight? Here’s the preview.
Donald Trump: The latest polls prove that The God Bleeds. Trump spent the day before the debate joking with Iowa audiences, pleading, “Iowa, will you get your numbers up, please? Will you get those numbers up? I promise you: I will do such a good job.” It’s a new tone from Trump, who up until now has banked on his big poll numbers as a defense against accusations of political inconsistency and outright heresy ranging from his 9/11 comments to his quasi-defense of Hillary Clinton in the Benghazi hearings. Trump’s brash persona has rallied a base looking for a strong leader to take the fight to Democrats – but like salt in a stew, saturation kills the flavor. Hence the rise of Ben Carson. Tonight, Trump actually needs to play it safe: this could be the first debate where he’s not the central target. His numbers haven’t dropped substantially, and if Carson finds himself at the center of a firestorm, he could watch his own numbers drop. Subtlety and Trump have never met, but they should at least get acquainted tonight.
Ben Carson: Carson will receive a large number of questions tonight. He’s been able to skate thus far in the debates by relying on his soft-spoken manner and his back to basics approach – but what will happen if he’s stumped on stage by a specific question about financial policy? More importantly, what happens if a non-Trump candidate like John Kasich attacks him? Carson has the most to lose tonight, but if he weathers the storm, he’ll continue to poll well. He’s not vulnerable to collapse the same way many of the 2012 candidates were.
Jeb Bush: Bush’s candidacy now exists at the edge of relevance. He’s cutting staff around the country, his consensus frontrunner status has collapsed, and Marco Rubio is picking up his donor support. He’s called on the rest of the Bush clan for support, to no avail. And now he’s getting testy, telling a South Carolina audience, “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonized.” Tonight, Jeb’s stuck between a rock and hard place. If he gets combative, he looks desperate and angry; if he’s passive, he reinforces the notion that he won’t fight. Jeb’s toast, and the debate tonight should confirm that.
Marco Rubio: Of all the candidates in tonight’s debate, Marco Rubio has the most to gain. He’s the quiet pick by most pundits to win the nomination, despite his deeply problematic record on immigration, and he’s consolidating support from the sinking Bush ship. That means that Bush will likely attack him, as will Trump. Rubio will move from a secondary target to a primary one. Like Floyd Mayweather, however, Rubio’s smooth on defense, which means that repelling attacks could benefit him when it comes time for decisionmaking. On the other hand, Rubio’s unmarked at this point in the race – should someone land a serious punch, Rubio’s blemish-free campaign could begin to show its first signs of wear.
Ted Cruz: Cruz, along with Rubio, has run the most professional campaign in the race. He’s built a solid grassroots base in Iowa, has lots of money in the bank, and continues to represent the most consistently conservative record. The problem for Cruz is his general approach: he appears to think too much. You can feel the gears turning. His debate approach thus far has mirrored that problem: he turns to camera, speaks slowly, in calculated cadences. There’s no passion. He may be waiting until later in the race to make a big move, but if he wants to make one, he’ll have to show some fire tonight. Unlike many of the other candidates, he’s been directing his fire toward Democrats – if he does that while Rubio is busy fending off other Republicans, he could look presidential enough to continue his climb.
Carly Fiorina: Fiorina’s campaign has stalled. She’s in the worst position of all the debate candidates: thanks to her stellar prior debate performances and her inability to use them to build momentum, people expect her to be terrific, and won’t reward her even if she is. Fiorina has to be great, but she should also show some flair. Her main problem as a candidate is that she’s an outsider who speaks like an insider: Carson and Trump are rough around the edges and feel like non-politicians. Carly’s a non-politician who feels like a politician, representing the worst of both worlds. She’ll need a big unscripted moment to move up.
Rand Paul: Paul has no strategy, no momentum. He’s down to sixth in Iowa and eighth in New Hampshire, by some polls. His organization is small and lean, and not particularly well funded. His issues don’t seem to resonate with the Republican base, who are not isolationists and don’t care all that much about Edward Snowden’s revelations, at least not compared with the concern demonstrated by the rest of the public. His libertarian anti-police streak doesn’t play well in primaries. Railing about drones won’t win Paul any points. Paul has essentially become an attack dog, but he’s unable to attack any of the candidates on points of actual vulnerability, like immigration. Paul may be the next candidate out of the race as his Senate campaign moves forward.
Mike Huckabee: Huckabee, who has faded in Iowa polls, needs a boost tonight. He could get it by attacking Ben Carson. Carson’s evangelical support base has skyrocketed while Huckabee’s has drifted away. He’ll need to draw actual distinctions with Carson if he wants to win them back. Look for Huckabee to ask Carson about his apparently pacifistic foreign policy as well as his use of fetal tissue in research during his early days at Johns Hopkins.
John Kasich: Kasich is flailing, and like Bush, is angry about it. The man who once suggested that Big Government represents a pathway to heaven is angry at fellow members of the supposedly small-government party. Yesterday, he ranted, “I’ve about had it with these people. We got one candidate that says we ought to abolish Medicaid and Medicare. You ever heard of anything so crazy as that? Telling our people in this country who are seniors, who are about to be seniors, that we’re going to abolish Medicaid and Medicare?” Kasich is Angry Jon Huntsman, and he’ll have just as much impact tonight. But he will most certainly be one of Carson’s biggest detractors tonight. He’ll go after Trump, too (Trump, says Kasich, is “crazy” in his immigration proposals). Kasich’s anger will undermine him; Carson’s self-control will flip Kasich’s emotion against him. This should not be a pleasant night for the foundering Ohio governor. Kasich asks, “What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?” The answer: you aren’t a part of it, John, so there’s a reason you don’t get it.
Chris Christie: Christie can’t gain traction because he’s being out-blustered by Trump, out-moderated by Kasich, and out-establishmented by Rubio. He’ll need to pick a path tonight. Thus far, he’s attempted to show his big heart by going common man, ripping Trump and Fiorina over their business careers, for example. But he hasn’t shown the fight that originally led Republicans to back him. Christie’s target should be the unions tonight – with Scott Walker out of the race, Christie’s the only candidate with an actual union-busting record. Whether that tack picks up traction is another question.
The field is consolidating. After tonight’s debate, it will be Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Rubio fighting it out, with room for perhaps one other candidate. But that doesn’t mean this cavalcade of mediocrity won’t continue for the next few months – after all, how many of these candidates, like Jeb, actually have anything better to do?
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News, Editor-in-Chief of DailyWire.com, and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.