The press is full of chatter about what the other candidates could, should, must do to derail the Trump juggernaut at tonight’s CNN debate.
Naturally, the big audience for the second presidential debate offers the other Republicans a prime opportunity to make a lasting impression in this Donald-dominated campaign. So I expect there will be no shortage of canned zingers.
But every candidate on that stage has to be wary of getting into an insult contest with a gut fighter who doesn’t play by the usual rules of political politeness.
It’s all well and good for candidates to talk about creating a “moment,” but that can’t seem artificial or staged, or the attacker will look phony and a tad desperate. Trump’s rivals have to deliver a positive message about themselves while drawing a sharp contrast with the real estate mogul, not just denounce him, as Bobby Jindal did, as a narcissist and egomaniac.
And consider this: If half of the other 10 candidates try to whack Trump, won’t that make him look larger? Won’t that reinforce the narrative that Trump has so shaken the Republican establishment that his opponents are feverishly trying to bring him down?
Trump’s task is far easier: He can uncork his usual lines about the “very, very stupid people” running the government, and jab back at those who challenge him (bad polls, low energy and so on). And—remember the Fox debate—if he gets a detailed question that he doesn’t like, he can take a swipe at the media and the “gotcha” game.
In terms of the media’s focus, it’s going to be Trump vs. Whoever—as long as Whoever is named Carly, Ben or Jeb. The truth is that journalists have lost interest in most of the other candidates, who are mired in single digits (as is Jeb, but he’s still got the money, the Bush name, and the fading aura of the person the pundits thought would be The Man to Beat). That could change, but right now they're eclipsed by Trump.
Carson told me in the interview we aired Sunday on "Media Buzz" that he would not be throwing punches in this campaign, and that he regretted questioning Trump’s faith and felt he needed to apologize. So even though yesterday’s CBS/New York Times poll has him at 23 percent, close behind Trump’s 27 percent, I don’t expect Carson to take him on. The question for the “okay doctor” (in Trump’s words) is how he handles it if The Donald starts denigrating him.
The media are really hoping for a dustup involving Fiorina, whose Super PAC made a clever ad aimed at women, boasting she has earned every wrinkle on her 61-year-old face, after Trump told a Rolling Stone reporter, “Look at that face.” Trump has taken to hitting her as a failed CEO dumped by Hewlett-Packard, but keep in mind that she took him on in the Fox happy-hour debate, even though he wasn’t there.
“Never before in American presidential politics has a candidate who has drawn accusations of sexism and bullying been forced to personally confront the female recipient of his insults on live television,” the New York Times declares. “And with Mrs. Fiorina bragging that she is getting under Mr. Trump’s skin, their showdown is emerging as one of the most intriguing subplots of the second debate.”
And here’s the Wall Street Journal: “After punching her way onto the big stage, Carly Fiorina
is poised to take on her party’s heavyweights in Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate, where she will come face-to-face with the candidate who found fault with her face.”
Still, Carly was very restrained in responding to Facegate, telling Megyn Kelly only that she must be getting under Trump’s skin. So don’t expect any pro wrestling.
What’s getting a lot of traction online is Mark Halperin’s Bloomberg analysis of why Trump has a commanding position:
“With Trump, the rules have changed. So far, he has proven to be largely immune from attack, and also a master killer himself, with a unique political arsenal. With a few months to go before voters vote, Trump has squashed the poll numbers and personas of a host of his rivals, without resorting to significant traditional opposition research, paid media, or surrogates. He simply uses Instagram, Twitter, and his virtually unlimited access to the news media to unsheathe his sharp tongue, cutthroat sensibility, and unerring perverse humor. And Trump can shift to kill mode without strain or hesitation.
“From the get-go of his entrance in June, Trump has engaged intuitively in kill-or-be-killed tactics.”
Deadly rhetoric aside, one of the reasons I warned from the beginning that Trump shouldn’t be underestimated is that I saw how his buzzsaw style was sharpened in New York’s tabloid culture. But you can’t just be a Don Rickles figure. Some voters are also drawn to his successful career in real estate and reality TV, and the wealth that enables Trump to thumb his nose at the donor class.
One thing to watch: If Trump uses the debate to raise his recent arguments about overpaid CEOs and taxing hedge-fund millionaires, you’ll know he’s decided to shrug off the not-really-a-conservative attacks and stay on his populist path.