As we settle in for tonight’s critical Republican debate, here are the things I am looking for:
1. Donald Trump the Debater is a remarkably different animal than The Donald I see on the campaign trail. In debates, Donald has preferred to stay above the fray, avoiding the personal attacks that characterize his stump speeches unless he is attacked first. One of his harshest critics on the debate platform has been Rand Paul – but the Randy Man has left the building. So that leaves Jeb! to take The Donald on directly – a tactic that so far has not yielded positive results. I expect The Donald to stick with the laid-back, play-it-safe strategy and retaliate only if attacked.
2. Ted Cruz’s lead in Iowa is slipping, although he is still slightly ahead of The Donald in the aggregate polls in this crucial (for Cruz) caucus state. The question is whether to take the gloves off and come at The Donald directly. In recent campaign appearances Cruz has begun referring to The Donald’s “New York” values, a not-so-subtle effort to weaken Trump’s standing among social conservatives who are an important voting bloc in Iowa. Look for Cruz to hold back unless The Donald comes at him with the birther remarks, or questions regarding the Goldman Sachs loan, in which case I expect Ted to retaliate by questioning Trump’s social conservative bona fides.
3. Rather than attack Trump, it is far more likely that the Republican establishment foursome of Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio will train their fire on each other, in an effort to consolidate support behind one of them as the Donald alternative in New Hampshire. Already Cruz and Rubio have clashed over immigration and I expect that they will again go at it on stage tonight. The others, however, have largely avoided direct attacks on each other, although their respective Super Pacs have shown no such hesitation. Rubio’s Super Pac has unleashed an ad criticizing Christie’s record as NJ governor, while Bush’s has been targeting Rubio’s “no show” Senate voting record. With about three weeks to go before the New Hampshire primary, there’s a lot at stake here for all four candidates. At least one and possibly two face the prospect of getting winnowed in the Granite State.
4. In contrast to the CNBC debate debacle, the Fox moderators have done a good job in previous debates avoiding “gotcha” questions, sticking to issues, and generally not becoming part of the story. With only seven candidates on stage, there should be more time for substantive responses. However, much depends on what questions are asked. Certainly the Cruz loan issue will come up, although I will be surprised if he hasn’t prepared a response. But what other issues will drive the debate?
5. The debate is taking place in South Carolina, which will hold its Republican primary 11 days after New Hampshire. Carson is hoping to do well here among social conservatives if Cruz stumbles in Iowa, so a strong debate performance is probably a necessity. However, even that may not be enough to prevent him from getting winnowed if he finishes near the bottom in Iowa, which looks very probable based on the latest polling.
6. Jeb! is clearly playing a long game, hoping his money and organization will enable him to survive early defeats. But if his poll numbers drop too far, the big donors will begin moving their money to other candidates. So he’s also banking on a strong performance tonight.
I’ll be back on shortly before 9 p.m.