The central drama that will play out in tonight’s GOP presidential debate is how the pack of mainstream candidates, languishing in the polls, will confront Donald Trump. Trump has benefited to this point by a widely held – but so far incorrect assumption – that if you stay out of his way long enough he will eventually crash and burn. Yet, Trump has (surprisingly) proven to be more resilient as a candidate than many of us (myself included) would have ever believed, surviving a series of gaffes and missteps that would have felled a lesser candidate.

For the pack of mainstream candidates stuck in the middle (or perhaps more accurately at the bottom), the time has come to stop waiting for the inevitable collapse and push Trump into the wall. The trouble is, if Trump does crash, he’ll take several other cars with him, including the driver who forced him out the race.

Here is where a large field of candidates makes a difference: Were Trump matched with any of the other candidates in a two-person race, the strategic calculation to attack would be obvious. In a multi-candidate race, attacks are riskier as they often impose a toll on both the attacker and the attacked. The candidate that emerges from this overcrowded field may well be the candidate who stays out of (and above) the fray. Think Ben Carson or John Kasich.

But these “stuck in the middle” candidates have other strategic imperatives they must also consider. In order to continue to garner campaign contributions and build the organizations necessary to run a successful presidential campaign, they need to show that their campaigns are gaining (and not losing) momentum. The trouble confronting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and others is that they appear to be backsliding from contenders and front-runners to also-rans. To combat this, they need a strong and assertive performance to show that their campaigns are not “low energy.”

The polls, in this sense, do matter; though it is not simply a matter of who is winning and who is losing. In mid-September, we are still in the beginning chapters of the 2016 presidential campaign. The question of who is gaining ground and who is losing ground – and who is emerging as a viable and electable candidate  –  is far more important. The early front-runners in this election cycle – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul – need to reestablish their candidacies by making a strong claim as to why they should be the nominee.

The most direct path is to stand up the classroom bully.The risk, of course, is that Trump has proven he will hit back.


Who Will Stand Up to Trump in the Second GOP Debate?


The Rise (and Fall) of Donald Trump

Ignore the surge in the polls, Donald Trump has no long term viability as a candidate.  His current standing is mostly based on name recognition, media coverage, and a willingness to speak more “candidly” than the typical politician.  Trump not only seems different, he is different.

Just not in a good way.

First, as we have seen this week with his comments about John McCain, there is a high probability that he will eventually self-destruct. Infatuated with the sound of his own voice and overly confident in his own abilities, Trump talks too much and with too little discipline. This may be a great trait for a professional commentator or reality show celebrity but not for the leader of the free world or for a presidential candidate.

Second, when the time comes (if there is a need),  the Republican Party establishment will bury Trump.  Think Newt Gingrich in 2012. His tendency for “candid” comments means there is a long record of quotable material that won’t play well with the Republican base. As Dan Balz of the Washington Post summarizes:

“Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination is a knot of contradictions. He disparages the Affordable Care Act but has called for a universal national health-care program. He calls himself pro-life after earlier saying he was pro-choice. He wants to expand Social Security benefits. He has repeatedly mocked his opponents in the most personal ways. Could someone like that unite the Republican Party or the country?”

Now add in a long history of business dealings that make Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital look like child’s play and you have enough raw material to swell even the most feckless consultant with confidence. While Trump hasn’t personally filed for bankruptcy, he has routinely used bankruptcy as a business practice. Trump’s explanation ” I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage—smart!” might play well on Wall Street but will be a difficult sell on Main Street.

The GOP field has – to date – been mostly reluctant to go after Trump primarily because he is more politically dangerous than he is politically competent.  If you are watching a time bomb, it is better to just wait until it blows up. They are hoping this will happen without them having to light the fuse. Their real fear is not that he will win the Republican nomination but – having failed to win the nomination – he will run as an independent dooming Republican chances in 2016.

The news media have also been complicit, giving Trump more coverage than all the other candidates combined. They would do a great service by following the Huffington Post’s lead and not covering him as a serious presidential candidate. That is too much to hope for, but as his polling numbers surge, the news media will eventually have to scrutinize his record. When they do, Republican primary voters will find it lacking.