Is this the dumbest idea of the 2016 campaign? Or is it the smartest?
The New York Times recently reported that several top Republican donors wanted GOP candidates to boycott the primary debates to signal their distaste for billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump.
Turning their backs on Trump would make news and establish the party’s identity as more than a big, bright platform for Trump. His sensational, barbed attacks on fellow Republicans, immigrants and President Obama have hurt the Republican brand with voters, including independents, Latinos and, most of all, Republicans.
But despite his many critics, Trump remains at the top of GOP primary polls in a fragmented and large field. Shunning Trump risks making him even more of a hero to voters who feel alienated from national politics. In Tuesday's Fox News poll Donald Trump continues to gain ground in the race for the Republican nomination. What’s more, the number of GOP primary voters saying they would at least consider backing Trump has more than doubled in the last two months. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Monday has him with 19 percent support, ahead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 15 percent and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with 14 percent.
Each of Trump’s rivals has to figure out how to spar with the political phenomenon that for Republicans can only be described as Trump’s turbulent, terrific and terrifying campaign.
Despite a series of rude attacks and uninformed statements, Trump’s celebrity appeal and his contempt for Washington politics and politicians have not hurt him among a significant slice of conservative Republicans.
Despite reports on his past contributions to Hillary Clinton as well as his past support for gun control and abortion rights, Trump continues to defy political gravity and reduce his rivals to munchkins.
In fact, the Journal poll found that since its prior poll, taken a month earlier, more Republican primary voters are picking Trump as their second choice. In addition, television and radio ratings show a strong and continuing appetite for news about Trump, his latest attacks on failed government and his contempt for establishment political leaders, from his rivals in the presidential race to Sen. John McCain and President Obama.
It is just a fact that Thursday night’s debate will be a reality television spectacle under the headline, “The Trump Show.”
If any of Trump’s rivals boycotted the debate, voters could reasonably ask: “If you can can’t stand up to Trump on a debate stage, then how are you going to stand up to Vladimir Putin, ISIS, Iran and North Korea?”
And don’t forget another key political fact for the big debate: The Republican Party’s favorability rating with voters has been slipping. Pew polling has it at 32 percent, and the biggest drop has come among Republicans, only 68 percent of whom give their party a positive rating. The party has also lost ground among independent voters – down to 29 percent favorability – and those voters are key to winning elections.
But now each of Trump’s rivals has to figure out how to spar with the political phenomenon that for Republicans can only be described as Trump’s turbulent, terrific and terrifying campaign.
The advice from top political strategists is for Walker and Bush, who will likely be on either side of Trump and within the frame of most camera angles of Trump, to keep the smirks off their faces. Their best strategy is to force him to answer questions about foreign affairs, health care and terrorism that reveal the limits of his policy knowledge, and then let viewers judge his readiness for the White House.
With that in mind, here is your guide for scoring Thursday night’s first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2016 campaign on Fox News.
The morning-after test for Trump will be his entertainment value and his ability to answer serious questions about policy. A caustic comment or two will light up the Twitter universe and satisfy the bloodlust among viewers tuning in for a fight. But the reigning champion of the early Republican primary contest has to show he can get serious on issues of critical concern if he wants to keep his crown at the end of the night.
Walker is the Republican most directly threatened by Trump’s rise. He has worked very hard to position himself as the leading conservative alternative to the establishment candidates like Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio.
Walker’s plainspoken delivery is appealing, but he has yet to show a grasp of national or international issues, and he has flip-flopped on big issues like immigration, ethanol subsidies and Common Core education standards. In the high-pressure, sound-bite-driven forum of a debate, he risks coming across as callow and uninformed. Can he avoid looking like he is in over his head?
Because he got into the race so early, Bush was able to lock up most of the big money donations and establishment support. This has given him a firewall to withstand the Trump surge. Donors and party stalwarts loyal to his father and brother have stuck with him this far, but a poor debate performance will unlock the gates of political anxiety, and that might start a rush of people with deep pockets to other candidates.
Bush has not backed down on his support for Common Core and comprehensive immigration reform. This consistency will help him if he makes it to the general election, but it puts two big targets on his back in this debate. Trump and the other candidates are going to come at him hard from the right on both issues. Bush needs to make it clear that he is not a flip-flopper, that he is seriously committed to his positions and that he cares more about people than about playing expedient political games for short-term benefits.
Keep your eye on Dr. Carson. He could well be the breakthrough star of Thursday night’s debate. His humble, calm and thoughtful demeanor is a powerful contrast to the bluster and hot rhetoric of Trump. Carson needs to make the case to the GOP base that his quiet, reserved form of conservatism is better for the health of the party than Trump. And with Carly Fiorina, the former corporate manager, not likely to qualify for the primetime debate, he will stand out on the all-male stage as the only person who is not white.
In the last few weeks the polls have not been kind to Sen. Rubio. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll over the weekend gave him 5 percent. A Monmouth University Pol released Monday has him at 4.4 percent. Those numbers constitute a big drop from May when he was at 14 percent support in the Real Clear Politics report which averages the results of major polls. But the Florida senator is still popular among Republicans who give him a high favorable rating and he still remains near the top when voters select their second choice. So Rubio’s goal on the debate stage is to show off his knowledge on big issues, especially foreign policy, and remind voters why they once had him as their first choice.
Wouldn’t it have been great to be a fly on the wall for Cruz’s private meeting with Trump in New York last month? The Texas senator is one of the most cynical and calculating politicians. He apparently has no interest in returning to the U.S. Senate after blowing up his relationships there by calling Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a “liar.”
At the moment, Cruz’s best hope is that Trump will collapse long before the first votes are cast and that Trump’s anti-establishment supporters will shift to him. He has done well in fundraising and can afford to wait until that happens.
One exciting possibility: Look for Trump and Cruz to tag team the other candidates. If they train enough fire on one of them, it could well be enough to drive him out of the race. Bush, Walker and Rubio have to watch out.
The Rest of the Field
Their goal is to be on stage, look good and raise their visibility with voters and donors. Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul are not looking to fight with Trump. There is no gain for them in that game. If Trump falls, Huckabee and Paul want to be alternatives for his backers in their search for a better anti-establishment candidate. To that end they must avoid mistakes before getting back to retail politics in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As for the candidates who do not qualify for the primetime debate, they will be on television for a one-hour debate at 5 p.m. on Thursday. Polls show most voters don’t know Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Their goal is to say hello to the voters and make a positive impression. A shot at Trump from Perry or Graham, who have a record of butting heads with the billionaire front-runner, will generate headlines. But their energy is better invested in delivering a message that sets them apart on any issue as serious and passionate and deserving of a second look before their campaigns fade to black.
At the end of these debates, pundits inevitably use Churchill’s famous line that “it is not the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning.”
With the stakes so high and the political climate so volatile, the 2016 debates could be the year where that maxim does not hold true. This could well be the end for a lot of these candidates.
By the way Facebook will be co-hosting the debate allowing you, the viewer, to go on-line and post questions and comments as the debate is taking place. That increases the odds for a great debate.
Get out the popcorn!
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.