CNN must be laughing all the way to the bank. On Tuesday the cable network hosts the last Republican presidential debate of the year, a mere 47 days before the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2016 primary season. And after the latest Trump theatrics, the ratings should be through the roof. The Republican race is a lot more fun than the average American football game, and may soon become as violent.
Will it be a Donald spectacular? Will someone dare take him down? Will a rival steal the show? No one knows, just as no one has a clue how the whole thing will end – maybe even at a brokered convention, a political reporter’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, something that hasn’t happened since 1976. But here’s my current take on proceedings. Amazingly, 14 candidates are still in the race – and none is likely to pull out before Iowa and the New Hampshire primary eight days later. Why should they, in a crazy year like this?
But a columnist, if not yet voters, can whittle the field down. For a start, discard Lindsey Graham, Jim Gilmore, George Pataki and Rick Santorum. Forget too Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and John Kasich. Paul, the Kentucky senator, and Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard and the only woman, have had their moments, but are clearly in decline.
The same goes for the spookily soft-spoken Dr Ben Carson, who briefly led the polls a few weeks ago. His metier, it is ever more obvious, is neuro-surgery, not politics. Which leaves five candidates with a chance of winning the nomination. Here they are, in ascending order of likelihood.
First, Chris Christie, former US attorney for New Jersey and the Republican governor of a state that’s reliably Democratic in presidential elections. Christie is a long shot, but his law enforcement background, as a prosecutor who handled high-profile corruption and terrorist cases, has given him a boost in this jittery age of Islamic State. His bluntness gives him a touch of the Trumps. He’s also gaining ground in New Hampshire, on which he’s basically bet the ranch.
Next, Jeb Bush. The limp performance of the scion of America’s most successful political dynasty has been, along with Trump’s durability, the biggest surprise of the campaign thus far. His fund-raising Super PAC brought in over $100m, eclipsing all rivals. But it’s already spent $50m of that on TV ads. The reward? A slide in the polls from 10 to 5 per cent. But all is not lost. Eight years ago, John McCain, an establishment candidate similarly written off, rose from the dead to win the 2008 Republican nomination. In the improbable event of a collective rush of sobriety by primary voters, Bush could yet do the same.
Which leaves three, whose chances seem to me about equal. First, Marco Rubio. If the nomination battle, as many expect, boils down to a fight between an establishment candidate and an anti-Washington bomb-thrower, Rubio is favourite to carry the establishment standard. He’s young, telegenic and very quick on his feet. In the polls, he’s effectively tied for second with his fellow first-term Senator Ted Cruz. He’s also the general election opponent the Hillary Clinton camp fears most.
Cruz, though, is the man to watch right now. Trump hogs the headlines, but Cruz has been steadily amassing support. He hasn’t taken up cudgels against Trump, positioning himself to pick up the latter’s supporters should, as they say, something happen.
He’s all but sewn up the important evangelical wing of the party, while his record as a one-man wrecking ball in the Senate and his ties with the Tea Party movement play to the anti-establishment, anti-Washington wing. His war chest is second only to Bush’s, and his ground operations second to none. He could easily win in Iowa, and do very well in the southern primaries on 1 March, or Super Tuesday, featuring his home state of Texas.
There are just two drawbacks. First, no one likes him. Cruz comes across as cold, sneering and nakedly ambitious, wearing his admittedly considerable intellect on his sleeve. He’s detested by party elders and by his colleagues in the Senate, where he has twice shut down the government and called his own Republican majority leader a liar.
Second, Cruz argues that Republicans have failed in the past because they nominated candidates who were too moderate. A real conservative, he contends, would fire up the base, and bring out voters who previously couldn’t be bothered. In other words, forget about the centre. Focus on your true believers.
Alas, even in polarised America, the centre does matter. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Their policies have so alienated young, women and minority voters that the party itself is fast approaching permanent minority status. Does it really want to throw away the White House again? If so, then nominate Cruz. Or, better still, choose Donald Trump.
Even America’s wisest politicos can’t quite come to grips with Trump the immigrant- and Muslim-bashing showman, part carnival entertainer, part street bully. He represents the perfect fusion of celebrity and politics, touching a chord in a significant section of the electorate. Until now, his rivals have been scared stiff of getting in a slanging match with him. The more outrageous his remarks, the more his supporters love him. The more withering his critics, the more tightly they embrace him. Trump’s giant ego trip could yet carry him to the nomination. But I doubt it.
He hasn’t a hope of winning the White House; do Republicans really want to commit political suicide? The polls notwithstanding, I believe – be it with the emergence of a consensus candidate (Rubio, conceivably Bush, or Christie), or a semi-house-trained version of the original (Cruz), during the primaries or at a brokered convention – an alternative will be found. Now I’ve given that massive hostage to fortune, let the next debate begin.
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