Heading into the New Year, the inevitable winnowing of the bloated Republican presidential field will leave a handful of candidates standing.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has said he will not participate in an “undercard” debate if he is not allowed on the main stage in the next Republican debate, which would be tantamount to quitting the race. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has said that he will bow out if he doesn’t poll in the top three in the Iowa caucuses on February 1. And considering that he is currently in a three-way tie for 7th place in that state’s polling average, there seems to be a good chance that he’ll be gone before New Hampshire votes on February 9.
Though they haven’t been as vocal about it, there’s no question that candidates like Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina, mired in low single digits in the national and state-level polling, are looking for exit strategies as well.
When the dust settles, there are five candidates who will probably still be standing as the GOP heads into the heart of the primary season, from March to early June. Here’s what they each need to do to maximize their chances of winning the nomination and (almost certainly) taking on Hillary Clinton in the general election.
It’s tempting to say that Trump needs to avoid alienating voters with divisive and frequently false rhetoric, but in truth, the more outrageous the former reality television star is in his attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and his fellow candidates, the more disaffected Republican primary voters seem to flock to his rallies and campaign events.
Trump’s poll numbers may be huge, but his biggest task now is to translate high levels of support in surveys into actual votes. Telling a pollster that you support a candidate is infinitely easier than trekking out into the winter cold in Iowa or New Hampshire and demonstrating that support at a caucus or in the voting booth. In both his campaign rallies and his social media posts, Trump has increasingly taken pains to explicitly call on his supporters to get out and vote.
Whether Trump voters will actually vote remains an open question. The Trump campaign appears to have a weak ground game where it counts, particularly in Iowa, where grass roots organization is essential to success in a caucus system.
The junior Senator from Texas has run this race like a marathoner confident that he’ll have the kick he needs to separate himself form the rest of the pack in the home stretch. After months of floating along in the middle of the polling distribution and refusing to engage in intraparty battles, his numbers have gradually begun to climb to the point where he runs second only to Trump nationally, and sometimes polls ahead of Trump in Iowa. He has also begun to throw some elbows, battling publicly with other candidates, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Though he’s a senator, Cruz is running as a political outsider, and unlike many politicians who try to assume that mantle, he’s got the history to back it up. Not only is Cruz an anti-establishment candidate, he is broadly hated by the old guard for his showboating in the Senate, his advocacy of government shutdowns, and his general refusal to cooperate with leadership.
What that means is that Cruz won’t be getting any support from the traditionalists in the GOP unless and until he wins the nomination outright. And if establishment votes aren’t coming his way in the primary, his only way of increasing his share is to pull anti-establishment votes away from other candidates. And the biggest target is Trump. If he wants to win the nomination, Cruz’s path leads directly through The Donald. He’ll need to find a way to blow up the billionaire’s campaign while not getting taken out himself. As previous attempts to take down Trump have shown, its perilous business.
Sen. Marco Rubio
For a while, Rubio looked like the GOP candidate from central casting – a handsome, youthful, well-spoken policy wonk and politician with a compelling life story of growing up the son of two Cuban refugees. Rubio, 44, was the quintessential young man in a hurry, a former Florida House Speaker who went on to win a Senate seat and then gradually rivaled his one-time mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
When he formally announced for president in Miami last April, Rubio promised a new generation of leadership – and made no excuses for leapfrogging over Bush and other more seasoned politicians. Since then, Rubio has methodically positioned himself for a major push for the GOP presidential brass ring in the expectation that Trump and Carson would eventually fade. And he has demonstrated a fluency in discussing complex issues, whether national security, economics or immigration reform that has made him impressive during the five GOP debates
But his early campaign persona of political boy wonder has taken a beating as the campaign heated up. Bush, Trump and other presidential candidates have made an issue of his shaky personal finances, his personal expenses charged to the Florida Republican party (which he says he paid back), his gross absenteeism from the Senate floor during important votes, and his role in crafting a Senate-passed immigration reform bill that many conservatives denounced as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
Now, his fate may turn on how well he fairs in a bitter duel with Cruz, a political contemporary and master strategists who is threatening to elbow Rubio aside in their bid for evangelical Christians, Tea Party adherents, Hispanics and younger GOP Republicans. Cruz has surpassed Rubio in the national polls and appears to be headed for a victory in the Iowa caucuses. Cruz has lashed out at Rubio for backing “amnesty,” even after Rubio disavowed the 2013 bill, while Rubio has criticized Cruz as soft on national security for supporting legislation to end NSA’s bulk telephone surveillance in this country.
The most intriguing question about Carson is how the novice politician who has stumbled so badly over the facts of his life story and who is so woefully ill-informed about foreign policy and national security is still in the hunt for the GOP presidential nomination.
For over a year, the renowned retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who once separated twins joined at the head steadily climbed in the estimation of evangelical Christians with his stories of growing up poor in Detroit and his staunch conservative views on government and social issues. In early November, Carson briefly eclipsed Trump in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll, 29 percent to 23 percent.
But GOP audiences have grown less forgiving, especially after major discrepancies arose in his biography. He asserted erroneously that China had intervened militarily in Syria, and he failed during a nationally televised interview to name the countries that would be part of his alliance against ISIS if he were commander in chief.
Carson, 64, has recently spoken more self-confidently about foreign policy, following a whirlwind trip to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugees and apparently cramming sessions with foreign policy experts. But as national security moved to the top of the list of voters’ concerns after the Paris and San Bernardino, California terrorist attacks, Carson still seems unprepared to describe his anti-terrorism strategy. And who will forget what Duane R. Clarridge, Carson’s one-time adviser on national security and terrorism, told The New York Times about Carson in November?
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Clarridge said.
Gov. Chris Christie
Christie seems to have put the Bridgegate scandal behind him and regained his footing after a brutally tough year of campaigning. The tough talking, tell-it-like-it-is former federal prosecutor is putting all his chips on the table in New Hampshire, where he hopes his law enforcement chops and self-proclaimed expertise in combatting terrorists will help him capitalize on voters’ fears of ISIS and more terrorist attacks on the homeland.
A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey in the Granite State showed the New Jersey governor moving up from ninth place to fourth place in a race still dominated by Trump. And he snagged a coveted endorsement from the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper that should help him some, even as Trump denounces Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid as a “real low-life” for likening Trump to Biff Tannen, the bully-villain in “Back to the Future,” in a front-page editorial.
But the 53-year-old Christie trails Trump, Cruz and others by so much in the national polls – and has little to point to in a national campaign organization or sizable war chest that anything short of a solid second place finish in New Hampshire likely will spell his doom.