CHARLESTON, S.C. — Thursday’s Fox Business Republican presidential debate sees two fewer candidates on the main stage, and is the second-to-last debate before voting begins on Feb. 1, when the very real winnowing begins.
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For the first time in modern political history, strategists are dividing the race for the Republican nomination into three lanes: conservatives, moderates and Donald Trump — with the former two lanes betting on driving out like-minded competitors while gathering their supporters into a winning coalition against Trump.
In all the chaos and Republican-on-Republican violence, here’s an easy-to-follow list of what to expect, ordered from front-runner to dead-last, with scenes from classic movies (and one from nature) to explain exactly what’s going down in Thursday night’s Charleston slugfest.
Donald Trump: Trump is poised to make Republican history, becoming the first candidate to win both the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary since the two became first-in-the-nation in 1976. This is a big deal: Over the past 40 years’ seven contests, the eventual Republican nominee for president has always won one of these states.
Trump has a comfortable lead in New Hampshire, but in Iowa, he’s only edging out Sen. [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] by .4 points. He’s also encumbered by his supporters’ lack of caucus experience– a problem Cruz and his veteran conservative supporters do not have. The Donald doesn’t need to win Iowa, but if he wants to maintain his impregnable persona, he sure better, and it would go a long way toward sealing his nomination.
Despite a bombastic campaign-trail style, Trump has been more subdued — behaved, if you will — on the last few debate stages, often unleashing his fury through tweets and interviews in the days following. While his on-stage stylings are unlikely to change in the face of Iowa’s less-rowdy electorate, look for him to target the senator from Texas onstage.
Recent questions on improperly-disclosed Goldman Sachs loans possibly helping Cruz’s Texas Senate bid will play right into Trump’s hands. The real-estate mogul is quick to claim that his personal business success renders him unbeholden to Wall Street interests, and he can be counted on to point out Cruz’s weakness on this. Expect a few barbs about how he hopes his “good friend” figures out his citizenship “problem” on the side.
Just six weeks ago, no one could get these brothers from another mother to speak an ill word of each other, but sometimes you have to shoot a man when he’s fishing. It isn’t personal, it’s business.
Watch Michael Corleone Take Care Of Business:
Cruz’s old-school conservative supporters won’t necessarily fall back onto Trump, however, and if he’s paying attention to his polling, he will also aim a few punches at the affable Dr. Ben Carson, whose voters are more likely to defect to Trump’s camp.
Sen. Ted Cruz: Cruz, who is in second place in national polls and is practically tied for first in Iowa, will find his flanks hit harder than in previous debates. Though if his freshman term in the U.S. Senate has prepared him for anything, it’s that.
Winning Iowa is crucial to his campaign’s narrative that he is America’s No. 1 conservative champion, and will provide him the momentum he needs to coast through the coming New Hampshire defeat and get his team down to the more Cruz-friendly southern states his campaign has relied on since the early planning days. In Charleston, Cruz needs to avoid Trump’s blows, keep up his solid past performances, and “stay on target” for Iowa.
As such, look for him to parry a few attacks from his old chum Trump, and also to take shots at the man right behind him– Sen. Marco Rubio. Additionally, Carson’s Evangelical supporters are key Cruzettes, and as his campaign continues to suffer weeks of defections, firings and mismanagement, it would be hard not to take a few jabs at the good doctor.
Watch Luke Skywalker Dodge His Abusive Dad While Landing The Kill Shot On His Pop’s Impregnable Fortress:
Sen. [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore]: Rubio is also set to make history, though maybe not the way his supporters planned before the Trump era. That’s because he very well could be the first modern Republican nominee to not win Iowa or New Hampshire, but still win the nomination.
His guys know the history, but they also know seven races is way too small a sample-size to make a judgement off of, and they’re confident he can write history when one of the two leading men falter. If that happens, you can be sure the Democrats will be unhappy: He’s consistently the only Republican who beats Sen. Hillary Clinton in every head-to-head poll conducted.
Rubio’s strategic advantage lies in his ability to drive in two lanes– both the moderate and the conservative. So while Trump’s 18-wheeler hogs up its own lane, the senator from Florida is working to consolidate the rest.
Conservatives rejoice: For the first time in a long time, the moderates aren’t united, and Rubio sees his first move in that lane. With Govs. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich struggling everywhere but New Hampshire, all Rubio plans to do is dominate them in the first two contests and then take their donors and supporters down to the South.
In Iowa, it’s a cinch: His closest competitor is Bush, who is polling so miserably that even Christie thinks he can overtake him there.
In New Hampshire, Kasich and Christie are way too close for comfort. And with those two betting everything on the Granite State, they are practically camped in Manchester while Rubio’s attention is divided.
With this in mind, look for Rubio to shore up his gains, look presidential, deflect attacks and land a blow on these three every chance he gets. If he’s lucky, Trump and Cruz will duke it out to the side, and once he finishes off the moderates, he can jump to the conservative lane like Luke Skywalker cleaning one desert skiff after another until he gets to the sailing barge.
Watch Luke Go From Dead Man Walking To The Guy Who Killed Bobba Fett With A Few Careful Jumps, Weaves And Slashes:
Dr. Ben Carson: There’s no path forward for Carson. After a quick bump owing to his Evangelical celebrity, good-humored nature and political-outsider status, he’s gone the way of past bubble candidates. With his top staffers fleeing, news that he’s misspent hundreds of thousands, and the day-of-the-debate announcement that his campaign finance chairman is resigning under suspicious circumstances, he would need to change his entire style and get tough with the guys taking his support — mainly, Cruz — if he’s going to have any impact. In the lead-up to the debate, he hasn’t given any indication that he will do this.
His opponents clearly sense blood in the water. Look for them to take bites out of Carson’s support.
Watch The Australians Ooo And Ah As The Ocean Gets Real For What Was Assuredly A Very Nice Whale:
Gov. Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor is in trouble. In debates past, pundits have opined that each is his last chance to reassure nervous donors. Well, that time is passed, and while he trails nationally and in New Hampshire, he isn’t even on the radar in Iowa, making him the first on this list who only qualified for two of Fox Business’s three qualifying metrics (which take into account Iowa, New Hampshire and national leaders.)
But he can’t give up. His dad was a president, his brother was a president, and his family’s friends gave a lot of money to support his nomination bid, which in another day or age would have been near-assured. He is determined to see real battle, so onstage, expect him to come out swinging at Rubio — the protegee he feels betrayed him — and Trump, the man he sees destroying the party his family devoted their lives to crafting.
One year ago, Bush’s reputation was as sterling as his accomplishments in Florida, and he was so feared that Gov. Mitt Romney was persuaded to sit this one out. But just because the hero is wounded and cornered down in Mexico, doesn’t mean they have to sit out one last gun-fight.
Watch American Movie-Lovers Spend Years Fighting Over Whether Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid Knew There Was A Mexican Firing Line Outside:
Gov. Chris Christie: Gov. Chris Christie only made one of Fox’s criteria — it’s impressive that he did — and he did it by picking up his governor’s job and his New Jersey State Trooper detail and moving them to New Hampshire. He can’t believe that Trump stole his big-angry-man thing, and he’s a little surprised the whole hug-gate has hurt him as much as it has, but damn if he doesn’t think he’s got a shot at catching Rubio in New Hampshire and hijacking Rubio’s path to the nomination right there, albeit without Iowa.
So look for Christie to swing hard on the younger, prettier senator. For weeks, he’s attacked the Floridian for his lack of executive experience and for being on the trail instead of in D.C. Rubio is one heck of a swordsman, though, and Christie has built a few holes into the truancy attack by making the majority of them from the Granite State instead of his own Garden State.
And Rubio won’t be his only target. Christie sees an in in Iowa through Bush’s unexpected weakness there, and knows if he can finish right behind Rubio, he can claim just as much momentum going into the next week.
Finally, it’s got to get his goat that Trump is doing his thing better than he is, and he’ll likely swing on the businessman next door.
Basically, if you’re onstage tonight, duck. Christie is going to swing forward, backwards and side to side as he tries to reclaim the title belt for political fighter.
Watch Rocky Balboa Get Off The Ground And Beat Some Heads Through Sheer Force Of Will:
Gov. John Kasich: Like Christie, Gov. John Kasich qualified for the debate by clawing up in New Hampshire. Like Christie, Kasich did this by essentially camping out in New England. But unlike Christie, he has not performed well on the national debate stage, often delivering rambling protests against conservatism in a primary atmosphere that is decidedly illiberal.
Kasich has indicated that he will be devoting his time and resources to taking on issues his fellow candidates won’t. Sometimes that’s defending welfare-expansions, other times it’s attacking Mr. Trump– an activity he has been busy at weeks longer than his fellow main-stage candidates. Expect more of the same, plus some hits on the right, but don’t look for much impact.
He May Fancy Himself Randy Quaid…
…But He’s Probably More Like That Arab Swordsman In “Indiana Jones”…
Carly Fiorina, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rick Santorum (And Sen. [crscore]Rand Paul[/crscore]): Strict Fox Business debate rules cut off candidates with little to no chance of winning the nomination, and with Jan. 28’s debate also hosted by Fox, there’s no reason to expect a merciful relaxation of those rules before Iowa. As such, there’s no reason to expect Fiorina, Huckabee or Santorum to come back into competition in time for Feb. 1’s crucial kickoff. The exception to this might be Paul, who is skipping the lower-tier debate to hit Iowa.
Paul’s campaign pushed hard the day before Thursday’s debate to reverse Fox Business’s decision after newer polls brought his Iowa average to a tie with Bush for fifth-place– within Fox Business’s polling parameters, though released after their deadline. It didn’t work, but with an actual ground operation that has familiarity with Iowa, it’s possible that he could rally enough Iowan support to qualify for the main stage in the final round before the caucuses.
Shoddy polling or not, though, Paul’s path to the nomination has essentially vanished, with Trump taking his wind, Cruz dominating his issues, and the passion his father’s supporters once expressed failing to coalesce around the freshman senator. After disappointing results in Iowa, look for him to return to Kentucky, where Republican leadership has been pushing him to campaign for a potentially difficult re-election battle in November 2016.
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