Tonight, the Republicans will gather for their fourth debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I suppose the locations don’t matter, but why they don’t do it in Iowa is beyond me. Anyway, the debate (on Fox Business Network) will be a little smaller this time, not because anyone has dropped out of the race, but because the debate organizers have required that a candidate average 1% in the national polls to participate. Three candidates, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki, have failed to reach even this low bar.
The field is still unwieldy enough to require two debates. Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum will sit at the kids’ table, while Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump take the main stage. I hope a debate among eight debaters proves easier to manage than one with ten, which has just seemed absurd at times.
As before, the task for the candidates in the first debate is to get noticed. As the primaries near, this begins to look more and more like a lost cause, but there is still some hope. Jindal polls higher in Iowa than he does in the national polls that determined his placement here, and Christie has the ability to make himself heard. The other two, if they don’t make a strong showing in Iowa (and they haven’t so far) are doomed.
At the big show, Kasich, Paul, Fiorina, and Bush are fighting against the draining of their supporters to the two emerging leaders among the normals: Rubio and Cruz. That sort of a break out is difficult: Fiorina achieved it once, in the performance that elevated her to the grown-up table, but since then her support has receded. For Paul, the number of like-minded libertarians in the party may be too small to move him any farther than he already is. Kasich does well among moderates and the media, but even the disproportionate attention he gets hasn’t raised his standing among actual voters. And for Bush, the challenge is the most acute. He went for the knockout last time, and Rubio counter-punched him back into his corner. It’s hard to see any different result this time.
Trump and Carson continue to struggle to find respect among serious voters, and I don’t see how they’ll do so tonight. Both have run policy-free campaigns. Will they get serious this time? I doubt it. Expect more bombast from Trump and weirdness from Carson.
That leaves the two frontrunners among serious candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Cruz won some hearts in the last debate with his cogent policy remarks, self-awareness, and attacks on the inept moderators. More of the same won’t hurt him. Rubio, the recipient of several high-profile endorsements since the last debate, needs only to replicate his previous performances to show that he is the proper mainstream candidate around whom the party regulars should continue to coalesce.