The second of 12 GOP debates airs tonight on CNN. The debate will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a fitting venue in so many ways. The spectacle, one assumes, will consist of the usual platitudes and non-answers. It does matter, however. What happens in these debates impacts the trajectory of the race, and often in unexpected ways. To help summarize where the overall race is as well as what’s at stake tonight, here’s a candidate-by-candidate breakdown. I should note that I’m only including the candidates participating in the varsity debate at 8 p.m. Eastern, because, let’s be honest, no one in the junior varsity debate really matters.
Trump, despite the noble efforts of adult Republicans, is still leading the pack. The race is his to lose. Like all front-runners, Trump needs to avoid making mistakes. That means he needs to say as little as possible – talking only increases his odds of sounding like a moron. When he does talk, he should do what he’s done from the beginning: Tell the audience how tremendously awesome he is and remind them that the other candidates, despite their relevant experiences, are too stupid and weak and impotent to make America great again. The key for Trump is to not get dragged into a non-superficial discussion of the issues. He gets into trouble when he tries to explain something. Besides, Trump appeals to conservatives because he doesn’t give a damn about logic and policy. Thus he needs to focus on projecting the right balance of ignorance and confidence. If he can do that, he’ll be fine.
Carson is in an interesting position. He’s catapulted to second in the GOP race and appears poised to continue surging. A retired neurosurgeon, Carson has benefited from the Republican Party’s mania for an outsider candidate. The key for Carson is to sound informed. His strategy so far has been to appear sufficiently pleasant that no one really notices that he doesn’t know anything about politics or governance or anything else remotely relevant to the position he’s seeking. Since that’s working, he should keep doing it. He has to be careful, though. Now that he’s a legitimate contender, other candidates might go after him in the debate. It will be fascinating to see if he can handle this without making painfully clear to viewers that he doesn’t, in fact, know what he’s talking about.
Thanks to her rock star performance in the first debate, Fiorina (who really has no chance of being elected president) has secured a spot in tonight’s debate. Besides engineering the collapse of one of America’s largest companies, the ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO doesn’t bring a lot credentials to the table. Her greatest strength right now is her rivalry with Trump, which has breathed a little life into her otherwise inert campaign. Trump did Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, a favor when he attacked her physical appearance. Look for her to capitalize on that by making a show of Trump’s chauvinism. This may backfire, however. As Trump has shown, there’s a subset of the Republican Party that gravitates toward misogynistic assholes, so I’m not sure she can attack Donald without also alienating these people.
Bush is in trouble. He was the darling of the establishment wing of the Republican Party leading up the race, but he just can’t get any traction. A distant third in most polls, Bush is on the verge of losing the support of his financial backers. He’s also embroiled in an amusing skirmish with Trump at the moment. In case you missed it, Trump recently released an ad that quietly accuses Bush of having “Low T.” Expect Bush to go on the attack tonight. If he continues to play the beta male to Trump’s alpha shtick, he may well drop out of the race completely.
Rubio is also in a precarious position. He’s polished and has the kind of bona fides the establishment wants, but he’s practically irrelevant at this point. His “I’m-a-serious-person-with-serious-ideas” routine hasn’t paid off yet. Most people (read: his donors) think he needs to be more aggressive. To that end, I expect him to do what most candidates do when they're sliding in the polls: attack the front-runner. If he wants to resuscitate his campaign, he’ll have to engage Trump and Carson and possibly even his Florida rival, Jeb Bush.
Yes, you read that correctly, Rand Paul is still in the race. Paul’s polling numbers have plummeted in recent months, and he hasn’t quite figured out how to become relevant again. Paul needs to steal back some of that anti-establishment energy that Trump and Carson have captured. His non-interventionist libertarianism is what catapulted him into the spotlight in the first place. To gain any traction at all, he’ll need to engage the front-runners and distinguish himself once again as the son of his followers’ favorite politician.
Walker is under a lot of pressure tonight. Once the preferred candidate of the Koch brothers, he has continued to dip in the polls. He made a laudable effort in the first debate to remind Republicans how little he respects women’s bodies, but that didn’t give him the boost he anticipated. Walker's financial backers are almost certainly worried about his prospects now, so expect him to deliver a strong showing tonight.
Cruz has struggled to overcome his abject unlikability. His plan so far (and I use the word "plan" loosely) has been to ride Trump’s coattails as long as he can and then swoop in for the asshole vote once Trump leaves the race. Unfortunately, Trump isn’t going anywhere, so Cruz needs to rethink his strategy. He’s made a valiant effort to secure the evangelical vote as well, but Huckabee’s shameless pandering has made that difficult. Look for Cruz to be more aggressive tonight.
Huckabee’s shtick is pretty simple: relentlessly pander to religious conservatives now and capitalize on the Christian lecture circuit later. I’m pretty certain Huckabee isn’t actually running for president. One-trick pony that he is, I expect Huckabee to toss red meat at evangelicals tonight by reminding them of how willing he was to exploit Kim Davis for political purposes outside that Kentucky jail. He won’t gain any ground in the polls, but this will keep him relevant enough to secure his next book deal.
Kasich is a bit of an enigma. In the first debate, he courageously sided with Christ over Republican Christians in the debate over gay marriage. This display of human decency didn’t hurt him, but that’s probably because it took place in Ohio, his home state. National Republicans are still skeptical of Kasich, so he has to be careful not to appear too Christ-like. I expect him to dial down the decency a bit tonight, but not too much, because he needs to impress primary voters in New Hampshire, who are slightly more reasonable than most Republicans. If he does well, he may capture the attention of the establishment donors who are growing weary of Walker and Bushy.
I saved Christie for last because I honestly don’t have much to say about him. He doesn’t really matter, and he has no chance of winning the nomination. He's been an objectively terrible governor in New Jersey, and his no-nonsense tough guy routine hasn’t worked. I expect Christie to do what he normally does -- namely, talk about what a straight shooter he is. I imagine he’ll also remind the audience that he was, in fact, in the New York area when 9/11 happened.