Election 2016: The Herd is Thinned for the Next Debate

The GOP field, massive and bloated as it is, has been remarkably resilient so far. Only two candidates have dropped out, despite half a dozen contenders lacking much more than 2 percent support. Yet as the next debate rolls around, the herd looks set to be thinned down. The main stage will have just eight candidates, down from eleven, and the junior varsity debate will have just four.

This debate could be decisive for several candidacies. Here’s what to look out for:

Trump on the Offensive

Donald Trump’s seemingly unassailable lead in the polls has been shattered by the sleepy charms of Ben Carson, who now leads or ties him in many national polls. For the last couple debates the Donald has been playing defense, not venturing far beyond his usual set of rhetorical soundbites. If he wants to arrest Carson’s ascent he will need to lay into the doctor. He has already laid the groundwork for an offensive, openly reveling in the troubles lately assailing the Carson campaign thanks to revelations of inaccuracies (some would say lies) involving his youth. If anyone can smash through the Carson’s cone of affability, it will be Trump.

The Good Doctor Must Wake Up

So far Carson has been able to rise in the polls thanks to a heady mix of soothing bromides and softly spoken conservatism. Now that his reputation for honesty and probity (the primary basis of his candidacy in the absence of any actual experience) he must shore up his image. He may be able to sell it as an unfair media witch-hunt, but that will mean waking up and clashing with Trump. If not, he may find himself bulldozed out of the race.

Rubio and Cruz: The Establishment’s Only Hope

After their mutual stellar performance last time, these two will be aiming to establish themselves as the only viable traditional politicians in the primaries. With a helping hand from another lackluster performance from Jeb, they may get their wish. For these two, winning is doing the same as before: look and sound presidential and try to convey the message that if the Republicans want someone who’s actually been in government before to be their nominee, then they should pick one of them.

Jeb on Death Watch: Hope of a Resurrection

I said before the last debate that Jeb had to start to shine in these debates or face an ignominious end to his campaign. Well, he continued to struggle and has since plummeted into numbers expected of also-rans, not the Great Conservative Hope he was meant to be. People are already writing his political obituary in anticipation of Tuesday. Jeb needs to surprise if he wants to survive.

The Rest of the Pack

The main stage is rounded out by John Kasich, Rand Paul, and Carly Fiorina. They have all failed to break out lately. It’s hard to see what they can do to change their currently meager numbers. Right now, they will be looking to get just enough credit from their small constituencies to keep them high enough in the polls to stay out of the kiddie pool.

Signs of Life from the JV Team

For the first time in a while it may be worth tuning in to the early debate. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, lately languishing in the polls, have found themselves relegated to the not-ready-for-primetime stage. And boy are they angry about that. Expect both to come out fighting. It’s hard to say if that will do any good though. Unless they can garner some real praise or attention, they may never find their way out of the doldrums. Expect this to be the last hurrah for some of these folks. I have my money on Huckabee to drop out first.

About John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His work has been featured by the Heartland Institute and the American Thinker. His first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013. John is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford. Read more from this author.