Tonight’s second Republican presidential primary debate will determine the course of the race for the foreseeable future, or until the next scheduled debate on October 28. Candidates like Trump and Carson need to maintain their leads, while others are desperately fighting for political relevance in the crowded race.
We list each presidential candidate below and what experts believe they need to do in order to stand out and grab the momentum, especially on the heels of the “Summer of Trump.” Order is based on the overall RealClearPolitics polling numbers for the GOP nomination. Let us know what you think below!
Trump enters the debate with some of the highest expectations of the evening as he is certainly everyone’s target. Trump was successful playing to the large and rancorous crowd in last month’s Fox News debate and was successfully able to convince his followers he was a victim of unfair questioning from the moderators, ala Megyn Kelly. This time though, the debate will be a more subdued crowd of only 500 attendees in the smaller Reagan Presidential Library building.
Recommendation: In this subdued environment Trump would greatly benefit by presenting some policy substance to prove he has the policy chops for the job. He knows he will be ganged up on tonight and should continue to show his resilience but without personally attacking other candidates, ala Carly Fiorina and “her face.” Instead, he’s been more successful attacking others for perceived weaknesses in contrast to him, ala Jeb Bush, calling him a “low energy” candidate – as we all know what he’s hinting at.
Currently ranked #2 in the RealClearPolitics average poll, Carson was at 6% before the first debate and has now rocketed to 20%. His rise has been due to his outsider status and thoughtful admonitions on policy challenges. His steadfast rise, like Trump’s, will make him a target as well this evening and some, including Trump, might bait him into going negative to tarnish his nice-guy persona.
Recommendation: Continue to offer substantive and thoughtful policy solutions by contrasting himself from Trump as the thoughtful outsider. Carson shouldn’t take the bait by going negative. He stumbled a little last week when he questioned Trump’s faith.
Bush has much to lose tonight if he cannot impress donors and the Republican Establishment – his base of support. It’s obvious Trump has gotten under his skin with all the talk of his “low energy” and has tried to counter that impression in recent days by appearing more spry and optimistic. His drop in the polls though allows room for other Establishment-type candidates, in particular John Kasich, who is polling higher than Bush in the early primary state of New Hampshire
Recommendation: To counter Trump’s criticism of his “low-energy” persona, Bush may overdo his newly found energetic nature and appear desperate. Bush is better off making a joke about himself needing a Red Bull and be forceful in responses without looking like he’s getting in the mud. Contrasting himself with Kasich might also win him back some of his base support.
While currently ranked #4 in the RealClearPolitics polls, Cruz is running the “sleeper hit” campaign of the presidential cycle so far by fundraising more than anyone else (next to Bush), but is being overshadowed by the rise of Trump, Carson and Fiorina. His unofficial “alliance” with Trump is very smart as his campaign is betting on Trump cresting at some point and Cruz most likely to be the recipient of much of the Trump vote.
Recommendation: Cruz needs another strong debate performance, perhaps highlighting his position on the Iran Nuclear Treaty and how he organized a sizeable rally last week in DC. This would be very timely as the issue is currently being debated in congress and will most likely come up tonight. Cruz initially made early efforts to court the evangelical vote, but Carson seems to be the recipient of much of that support in recent weeks. Cruz needs to recapture this bloc, or at least look like a reasonable alternative to Carson.
According to most expert analysts, he had a great first debate contrasting himself to Hillary as the “old” and his campaign as the “new.” But it hasn’t turned into robust support. This might make some sense as illegal immigration is the predominant issue in the campaign right now and that might be Rubio’s “Achilles Heel,” due to his previous stances on it. This is perhaps why he is not gaining traction at the moment. His campaign might be betting on him to be a plausible, youthful alternative after every other candidate has had their time in the sun, ala Trump, Carson, etc.
Recommendation: Rubio needs another strong debate to keep him in the discussion. His strongest points from the first debate was telling his personal story and that he represents the future of the Republican Party, contrasted with the “old” Democrat candidates. He needs to remind voters that he has executive leadership experience having run the Florida legislature as Speaker for many years as many voters are wary that Rubio is the Republican Party’s version of Barack Obama – a young, charismatic guy who talks a good game, but may not be ready for the highest office in the land.
Huckabee recently received some media attention due to his championing of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples, after she was released from jail last week. While it did bring him back into the limelight, some saw it as grandstanding.
Recommendation: Huckabee maintains a small but solid base within the electorate but needs to have a break out opportunity where he can channel his successful 2007-8 debate performances, especially on cultural issues, in a clear and connectable way that thrust him to victory in 2008 at the Iowa caucuses. It’s Carson, not Trump, who’s taking his voter base. He’ll need to highlight his executive experience in contrast to Carson’s lack of political experience, but in a way that doesn’t offend those who appreciate Carson’s outsider status.
Paul is desperately fighting for political relevance in a libertarian moment that may’ve passed, in light of the rise of ISIS and the threat from Iran. Paul’s first debate performance smacked of desperation and his fight with Christie was with the wrong candidate that evening. It didn’t help that the crowd erupted in laughter when Trump responded to a Paul attack by telling him he was having a hard time listening that night.
Recommendation: More so than anyone else, Trump has definitely taken the wind out of Paul’s sail as the not-the-usual politician in the race. As a result, Paul needs to remind his base and donors why he is the true outsider candidate and talk about how the outreach work he is doing is helping to broaden the Republican Party electorate. There is nothing wrong with distinguishing himself as the civil libertarian in the race when it comes to domestic NSA spying issues, but he needs to be careful to not sound weak on national security as the sentiment of the base is more of a muscular military posture.
Next to Trump, Fiorina has some of the highest expectations of the evening. After handily dominating the Fox News undercard debate last time, she is the only new candidate to participate in the featured debate. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s the only woman in a crowded field of men, and has recently received a lot of attention because of Trump criticizing her physical appearance, and for her measured response.
Recommendation: She has to continue introducing herself to the electorate and play on her strength of responding to questions in her smart and crisp manner. She has a lot of goodwill at the moment because of her mature response to Trump’s off-color remark, but she should be careful not to play the “victim” card. By telling Megyn Kelly recently that she’d let his comments speak for itself, she was showing she can handle the rough-and-toughness of a presidential campaign. Because of this incident, its rumored she will be the attack dog let loose on Trump this evening, as she is best positioned to do so. Watch for the Trump v. Fiorina exchanges tonight to be some of the best highlights.
Like Rand Paul, Walker is fighting for his political survival. After his lackluster first debate performance, Walker precipitously fell in the polls. As a touted front runner earlier this year, it’s been a shocking fall for someone so revered by the base throughout the last few years due to his monumental battles with the labor unions in Wisconsin.
Recommendation: This really is a make-or-break moment for Walker. He has to remind the base and donors why he is really the true DC outsider and that he will be a conservative warrior for them. Both Trump and Carson have stolen his thunder but much of it has been self-inflicted with his surprisingly safe posturing and perceived flip-flopping, especially on illegal immigration. It’s not too late to turn it around, especially in Iowa, if he can remind voters he is a proven leader with executive experience and is the real DC outsider.
To most pundits, Kasich had one of the best breakout performances in the first debate and has since soared in the polls in the important primary state of New Hampshire. You can see him positioning himself as the alternative establishment candidate if Bush were continue to fall in the polls.
Recommendation: While Kasich and Bush might not differ much on policy, Kasich is the anti-Bush when it comes to personality. No one would ever call Kasich a “low-energy” candidate. Kasich thrives in connecting with voters on a personal level and should continue to do so. He does not need to attack Trump or Carson as that’s not the constituency he needs. Instead he should focus on contrasting himself with Bush and Christie as a plausible alternative candidate to establishment-type voters.
Like Paul and Walker, Christie is in a make-or-break moment. Trump has really overshadowed the straight-talking NJ governor. Once touted as the frontrunner in the presidential race after his landslide gubernatorial re-election, Christie finds himself rounding out at the near-bottom.
Recommendation: While many believed he won the spat between himself and Rand Paul in the first debate over national security, he seemed to have picked a fight with the wrong candidate. Paul and Christie are not going after the same voters. Like Walker, Christie needs to remind voters of why they liked him in the first place. Christie should be able to find his inner-Trump again, but his base of support is in the establishment wing of the party and needs to contrast himself from Bush and Kasich in order to gain traction in his do-or-die state of New Hampshire.
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