The GOP candidates’ debate in New Hampshire Monday night was a drab, lackluster affair that didn’t move the needle one way or the other for any of the 14 candidates who took part.
Donald Trump, the undisputed front-runner, skipped the Manchester forum, saying it was hardly worth his time, and his absence was noticeable in the desultory discussion and general lack of energy in the room.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Trump’s nearest rival, stumbled for the umpteenth time through an explanation of how he was his “own man” and differed from his father and brother, the two previous Republican presidents. “Uh, my dad’s the greatest man alive,” Bush said at one point. “If you don’t like it, I’ll take you outside.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, beamed into the forum from a TV studio in Washington, portrayed himself as a “different kind of Republican” who was less eager than other Republicans to go to war and more inclined to reach out to minorities. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, desperately trying to revive his campaign, voiced what many were thinking: “Am I washed up?”
Jeremy Peters, who covered the event at St. Anselm College for The New York Times, described Bush as “stunningly inarticulate” during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program Tuesday morning. Mark Halperin of Bloomberg agreed that Bush was not sharp all night and warned that if he repeats that performance at the Thursday night debate, “I think it will set him back in a big way.”
Fox News is promising a more electrifying debate Thursday, with Trump literally standing at the center of the ten candidates allowed to participate in the first nationally televised GOP debate of the campaign season. Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host who will be moderating the high profile debate in Cleveland, told The Washington Post that he had “some doozies” in his three-ring binder of questions.
A last-minute gust of fresh national polls shows Trump, the real estate tycoon and reality TV showman, comfortably in the lead with solid double-digit figures.
A new CBS News poll has Trump leading Bush, 24 percent to 13 percent, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker third with 10 percent. Bloomberg News has Trump out in front with 21 percent of the Republican vote, ahead of Bush with 10 percent and Walker at 8 percent.
The Fox News survey that came out Monday evening puts Trump at a stunning 26 percent in the crowded GOP field, followed by Bush at 15 percent, Walker at 9 percent, retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 7 percent, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee with 6 percent apiece. Rounding out the standings are Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida with 5 percent each, and Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich tied at 3 percent each.
The Fox News poll is interesting not only because it documents Trump’s strongest showing yet but because it suggests that his brash, take-no-enemies style may personify the kind of candidate that many rank and file Republican voters are looking for.
According to the poll, GOP voters are hungry for a “strong leader” and are far less concerned at this point about a candidate’s “ideological purity” or electability. Twenty-nine percent of the Republicans surveyed chose “strong leader” as their most important priority, while 20 percent picked ideological purity and just 13 percent said they were looking for someone most likely to beat Hillary Clinton or whoever the Democrats nominate as president.
Having the “right experience” and being able to shake things up in Washington also trailed as the most important trait being sought by GOP voters, according to the survey.
Finally, the Fox News survey – like a few other recent polls – indicates that Republican voters are fascinated by Trump’s leadership style and are getting more comfortable with the idea of the billionaire businessman as their party’s nominee.
Some 34 percent say they would “definitely” vote for him if he were the nominee, compared to only 8 percent who said that two months ago, according to Fox News. At the same time, the number who say they would never support Trump has dipped 26 points, from 59 percent in June to 33 percent now.