The GOP Debate: Why the Front-Runner Is a Longshot

The GOP Debate: Why the Front-Runner Is a Longshot

One of the most memorable presidential debate moments came in 1980 when Ronald Reagan said to then-President Jimmy Carter, shaking his head sorrowfully, “There you go again.” Everyone remembers that line, not because it carried great meaning, but because it was masterful – dismissing in a genial way Carter’s digs about Reagan’s supposed opposition to Medicare. Reagan’s position was controversial. His response made Carter look tiresome and testy, which he was. 

Reagan authored another famous debate line four years later, when he was asked if he was too old, at 73, to be president. He joked, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," which even drew laughter from his doomed opponent Walter Mondale.

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Prediction: Donald Trump will not win tomorrow night’s GOP debate because, at the end of the day, candidates have to be likeable. While The Donald has attracted a large following of people angry about illegal immigration, or angry about the decline in U.S. stature abroad, most Americans will likely find the arrogant and disrespectful Mr. Trump someone they don't want beamed into their living rooms on a regular basis.

The debates are an opportunity mainly to see how a candidate behaves under pressure. To be sure, important policy differences will emerge at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (Hardly the most felicitous venue name so soon after the Great Recession.) We will hear Jeb Bush defend his backing of the Common Core and Marco Rubio will doubtless be pressed to explain his about-face on immigration reform. But it is the candidates’ demeanor and personalities that will resonate most with voters.

Some of Trump’s backers have attempted to compare The Donald to Ronald Reagan, brandishing the motto “Make America Great Again,” which was a stock phrase for the Reagan-Bush team in 1980. Trump himself has channeled the former president, promising to “bring back the Reagan Revolution.” Who is he kidding?  The cornerstone of Reagan’s enduring popularity is his good humor and excellent manners– not a Trump hallmark.

Long-time journalist Leslie Stahl tells how the White House press corps used to gather on the South Lawn to catch Reagan on his way out of town, knowing he was too gentlemanly to ignore questions hurled at him as he passed by. Sure enough, he would unfailingly stop and respond, driving his aides crazy. His staff finally realized that if the waiting helicopter had its engines running, Reagan would not be able to hear the reporters. Thereafter, the whirly-birds were in full roar as the president emerged from the White House, shutting down the impromptu news conferences.

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Likeability is an essential and enigmatic ingredient in any presidential contest. One-time Republican candidate Bob Dole was not an appealing personality, though he was a strong leader; prickly and acerbic, he was doomed form the start. Al Gore was stuffy and pompous, definitely not likeable. George W. Bush, though detested by liberals, came across as a “regular guy”- the kind you might want to have a beer with. Mitt Romney, for all his accomplishments, could never project the decency and generosity for which he is known.

Hillary Clinton, too, has struggled to charm voters. In 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were duking it out in the Democratic primary, the president was asked whether he thought his rival was likeable. His answer: “likeable enough” was exactly right. Likeable enough… to come in second. Mrs. Clinton comes across as defensive and secretive; her demeanor has hurt her before, and it is hurting her again.

Personalities aside, those Republican candidates least well known to voters could gain the most from the debate. Unfortunately, some of the darkest horses will fail to make the primetime cut, so audiences across the country will not get a shot at Lindsey Graham or Carly Fiorina, for instance. But, Ohio Governor John Kasich could be a winner. Despite his nine terms in Congress, he is not well known nationally.

Many moderate Republicans are looking to Kasich as an alternative to Jeb Bush. Both have the executive experience that comes with serving as governor – a credential many think essential after six years pockmarked by President Obama’s inexperience and inept management. Kasich drew fire from conservatives for expanding Medicaid in Ohio, but on many key issues, he leans right, as in trying to limit collective bargaining for public employees, limiting abortions and supporting charter schools.

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On the other hand, Kasich is known to have a short fuse. Detractors can point to numerous instances when Kasich has snapped at challengers, or offended people. His personality has become an issue for his campaign (a lengthy piece in Newsweek was titled “The Unbearable Smugness of John Kasich”); he will have to rein in his temper if he wants to score on the debate stage.

Chris Christie could also be a winner. The New Jersey Governor’s ambitions have been clobbered by the scandal over the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, and the fiscal problems facing his home state, which have weakened his credentials as a fixer. But, Christie remains a remarkably powerful speaker; the debate could give him an opportunity to rebuild his credibility with voters.

The pressure tomorrow night will be intense. Thanks in part to Donald Trump’s off-the-rails candidacy, the audience for the debate will be large – with many tuning in just as they might to the Indy 500 – hoping for bloodshed.  Also, the Fox anchors hosting the debate are tough; Megyn Kelly is known for the “Megyn moment,” when she skewers some unsuspecting victim with an unexpected question. Bret Baier and Chris Wallace are also no-nonsense veterans. 

Who will win? Let’s hope it’s American voters.