By Ed Rogers – – – – –
With the conclusion of last night’s 5th Republican primary debate, the first phase of the 2016 GOP presidential campaign is over. After a brief intermission for the holidays, the campaigns will get down to doing what campaigns really do: sharpening their messages, identifying their voters and turning them out in Iowa and New Hampshire, and hoping to create a wave that will carry them into South Carolina and then the homestretch, starting with the March 1 primaries.
As I’ve said before, most of what matters in this campaign lies in front of us, not behind us. The intense, fluid dynamics of the last two or three weeks before a primary election cannot be overstated. We will see which candidates have money and which don’t and whether they have organizations in place or they don’t. That is not to suggest the last several months haven’t mattered at all. The last few months have shaped the biases that will follow the presidential candidates into the next critical phase of the campaign.
For Donald Trump, that means voters will have to decide if he is a legitimate contender or the political equivalent of Jerry Springer. Is he just an attention-grabbing train-wreck or a credible figure Republicans see as a potential president? The most significant thing Trump said at the debate last night was that he will not run as a third-party candidate if he loses the GOP nomination. It was a smart move for Trump, and as usual his timing was perfect. Part of the knock on him in the coming weeks is going to be that he’s not a good Republican. Removing the threat of a third-party candidacy and the perception that he is holding the party hostage does a lot to confirm that he is committed to the Republican cause. But that announcement was also good for the GOP. If Trump were to run as a third-party candidate, he would siphon away voters from the Republican nominee and ensure a Democrat’s election.
For Ted Cruz, I think voters have seen that he can be both belligerent and appealing. Cruz has made his name in the Senate by being obstinate, forceful and uncompromising. Are those qualities that can produce a winner in 2016? I think the biggest hurdle for him is the question of “likeability.” In 2016, I can see how an articulate candidate could reach 20 percent in the polls just by shaking his or her fist at the status quo. But to get over that number, you need to be a more inclusive personality. You need to be someone that voters are comfortable with.
The question about Marco Rubio is whether he is more than just the “class favorite.” Does he really have the stature to be President of the United States? Not to mention, he will need to withstand a barrage of negative ads that are coming soon.
Chris Christie managed to keep himself in the circle of plausible candidates, and he ended phase 1 on a pretty good note. His answer yesterday about whether or not he would shoot down a Russian aircraft if it entered a no-fly zone was the exact right response. President Obama has put America in a dangerous position, since all of America’s enemies know that deterrence is dead for the remainder of his term. At least Christie reminded potential adversaries that a new sheriff is on the way. Hopefully that message is enough to inhibit our enemies until President Obama leaves office.
Jeb Bush and John Kasich are both confronted with the problem of being viewed as out of sync with the angry component of the GOP. Both have lost a lot of ground and they will both need to be at the top of their game and lucky to make it into the winner’s circle.
I discount Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and the rest of the field as potential presidential nominees.
Overall, I think the 2016 campaign to date has been neutral for the Republican Party’s brand. Trump has imposed negative images on the Republican party, but I think those will be fleeting as long as he is not our nominee.
But oh by the way, something happened this week that will make a positive difference in the overall shape of the presidential race. The budget agreement Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) reached with the White House means the 2016 primary campaign can proceed into its most critical phase without the distraction of the Washington wing of the Republican party being engaged in an ugly fight. We all know these budget fights have a predictable outcome: There is a non-shutdown of the government, Republicans cave, the Republican brand is damaged and the president and the Democrats get a short-term lift. The ascension of Paul Ryan to the position of Speaker of the House is a big, under-reported plus for the GOP’s chances of winning the White House. Unfortunately, it is impossible to appreciate all the bad things that won’t happen now that he is in charge. If a Republican is elected president in 2016, Speaker Ryan will deserve a lot of the credit.