The Republican primary field looks very different today than it did nearly six weeks ago, when the first debate was held in Cleveland. Donald Trump has added to his lead, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are starting to show momentum — and some of the others are in danger of joining Rick Perry in falling off the map. A lot is riding on how the top 11 candidates, and the four in the undercard forum, handle the questions from CNN’s moderators at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Here is a rundown on where the race stands and what each of the candidates needs to do to stay competitive.
Up 5.5 points from the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland.
Trump is coming off back-to-back days of massive rallies, in Dallas and in Los Angeles. He spoke to roughly 15,000 people Monday inside the American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Mavericks and the Dallas Stars, and on Tuesday he held a rally aboard the 887-foot-long USS Iowa, a decommissioned battleship in the port of Los Angeles. He continues a steady rise in the polls, although his velocity has decreased somewhat. The question is, does this debate mark the beginning of a downward trend for Trump, or can he actually keep gaining in popularity? He’s led the pack now for almost two months, going from the mid-single digits in early July to the clear frontrunner, at 22 percent, in the space of a few weeks. He’s now at 30 percent, but his negatives are very high with a significant number of voters. Political observers have gone through different stages in their reactions to Trump. First came amusement, then mockery, and we have now been in the mild to moderate alarm phase for a few weeks. What happens with Trump on Wednesday night and in the following days will determine whether the GOP establishment goes into action and does what it can to derail and take down the demagogic anti-politician. They are hoping that the spell he has cast so far has been the equivalent of a late-night summer party, where alcohol and lack of sleep encourage loose talk and wild speculation. What nobody knows yet is what it will take to snap everything back to what they hope is still reality.
Up 12 points from first debate.
Carson is arguably the story of the last month, even if he has been overshadowed in the press by Trump’s “perpetual attention machine.” Carson has come from the middle of the pack to now a clear second place, at around 18 percent. And that’s despite a performance at the first debate that most political experts thought was forgettable and unimpressive. But clearly Carson’s lack of experience and absence of establishment connections has benefited him. Now, however, the soft-spoken retired surgeon is becoming a target. He and Trump have sparred recently. And he’ll be under a much bigger microscope than he’s ever experienced. “Dr. Carson realizes that more attention will be placed on him during this debate. He will also probably be given more time. But his goal is the same — to make his case and share his solutions with America,” said his spokeswoman, Deana Bass.
Down 4.7 points from first debate.
Bush has to improve his debate performance. The good news for him is that it won’t be incredibly difficult to do better than he did in Cleveland. The bad news is that he is cratering in the polls. Donors are restless. Bush is flying commercial now to some events rather than on a private jet, a telltale sign of a campaign that is tightening its purse strings. Still, Bush retains significant advantages in his ability to raise money and field a national organization capable of driving supporters to the polls in a drawn-out primary. And he is a highly intelligent candidate with a solidly conservative record as governor of Florida. The challenge for him is getting that across, and convincing the pundits and the voters that he has the leadership qualities to take command of the race. If he can deliver any kind of body blow to Trump, that would be a huge win for Bush. But at the very least, he needs to show more forcefulness and clarity.
Up 1.2 points from first debate.
The freshman U.S. senator from Texas continues to watch the rise of the nonpoliticians — Trump and Carson and Fiorina — and waits with open arms for the moment when the bottom falls out of their candidacies. Cruz advisers have watched Trump show up to events with little to no organizational effort to identify and collect contact information from supporters. They don’t think he has any capacity to translate his current popularity into votes, even if he doesn’t implode. “I think we are in a breakout moment,” a Cruz adviser said recently. But Cruz does need Trump to lose some altitude for that to happen. Cruz is focusing his energies on denouncing President Obama’s Iran deal, on defunding Planned Parenthood, and on talking about religious liberty. He is third in Iowa and positioned quite well for the fall. He needs to avoid any big errors or damaging moments.
Up a half point from first debate.
Political observers have expressed surprise that Rubio did not reap any real benefit from the first debate, where most agreed that he was among the most impressive. But the U.S. senator from Florida continues to play the role of the tortoise. He does not have a large, expensive campaign and so he does not have to worry about sustaining a massive fundraising effort. He is making smart organizational moves to position himself well in Nevada, which goes fourth in the primary process. HIs campaign said not to expect any surprises. He’ll be looking to hit singles and doubles, counterpunch if and when he’s attacked, and stay within himself. There’s not a lot of incentive for others to go after him at the moment, however, so it is likely to be clear sailing for him.
Up around 4 points from first debate.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was the breakout performer from Cleveland. She wasn’t even in the primetime debate, but her eloquence and charisma onstage, as well as in an interview afterward with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, vaulted her into the national conversation and bumped her polling average up to as high as 6 percent in mid-August. She has lost a little momentum since then, but was also given a gift by Trump when he insulted her looks in an interview with a Rolling Stone reporter. Fiorina spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the Reagan Library debate is “another opportunity for us to introduce Carly to a lot of voters. She still has among the lowest name ID in the field.”
Down 5.7 points from first debate.
Walker has fallen the furthest of any candidate since the debate in Cleveland. For a sampling of all that has been written about his woes, just Google “Scott Walker struggles.” Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a supposed ally of Walker’s, said in a recent Molly Ball look at Walker’s downward trend, “At some point he will figure out what he actually believes.” Walker has been going the wrong direction for months. He has developed a reputation as a flip-flopper. His campaign knows he needs to have a strong performance at the Reagan Library. “He didn’t use all of his time” in response to every question during the first debate, said an adviser. “He recognizes he can work on that” and that he needs to show “a bit more energy and contrast.” The nod to “contrast” is a signal that Walker will be more aggressive in critiquing others in the field. But Walker also remains in fourth place in Iowa. His favorables are high there. He may need to stop the bleeding, but he doesn’t need to panic yet. “We’re playing the long game,” the adviser said.
Down 2.5 points from first debate.
The former Arkansas governor may have hoped that his rally outside the Carter County Detention Center in northeast Kentucky, on behalf of the county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, would have given him a bigger bump than he has experienced. And that may still come. But you can bet that Huckabee will bring up his role in the Kim Davis saga. It might be interesting to see what he says if Cruz “mentions” that Huckabee’s staffers prevented Cruz from going onstage and speaking. Clearly, Huckabee wanted the spotlight for himself. But it might be too rich for Cruz, who himself loves the stage, to complain about it.
Up around 2 points from first debate.
Like Fiorina, Kasich’s polling average was so low around the time of the first debate that it’s not visible on the Real Clear Politics graph. And also like Fiorina, the Ohio governor was one of the most talked-about surprise candidates in Cleveland. The home crowd gave Kasich a huge ovation, he made some waves with his welcoming rhetoric toward gays and lesbians, and he has since seized third place in New Hampshire polling, where he is now discussed as a major obstacle there for Bush — who is seen as needing to do well in the state since he has little chance to win Iowa. Kasich needs a solid performance here, but nothing spectacular. He just needs to keep his modest momentum going and keep plugging away in New Hampshire.
Down 1.9 points from first debate.
If Scott Walker has plummeted in the last month, the U.S. senator from Kentucky has gone from floundering to afterthought. He doesn’t appear to really want to put up a fight for the nomination. He doesn’t like raising money. His campaign schedule has been erratic. He has telegraphed his strategy will be to attack Trump over the issue of eminent domain. Going after Trump didn’t work for Paul in the first debate. Perhaps he’ll score some points on Wednesday. But more important for him is that he run a more consistent, steady campaign.
Down 1.3 points from first debate.
The New Jersey governor had a solid first debate but has gained no traction. He is one of several victims of Trump’s all-consuming domination of the news cycle. But he also remains saddled with high negatives among voters, tied to the Bridgegate scandal. He will likely need others to stumble in order to have room to make a move for the front of the pack. The longer he goes without moving up in the polls, the less likely that long-shot scenario becomes. However, Christie remains a wild card due to the force of his personality and his political talents. If there’s anyone with the raw ability to deliver a roundhouse uppercut to Trump and have a breakout moment, it’s Christie.
No real movement.
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has his win in the Iowa caucuses from 2012 to fall back on. That year, he was nowhere in the polls until the last month. He hopes to outwork and outlast his competitors again. He’s the only candidate to have already visited all 99 counties in Iowa this cycle. But unlike in 2012, he is up against a large group of formidable candidates. He, along with Jindal, Graham, and Pataki, is in the non-primetime undercard debate.
No real movement.
The Louisiana governor hasn’t made any progress. He did, however, launch the most provocative attacks on Trump this month, mocking and ridiculing him even while acknowledging that some of Trump’s critiques of political correctness and crony capitalism are accurate. Trump has responded to Jindal, which is what Jindal wants. But unless and until Jindal can get himself onto the same stage as Trump, his ability to bait the frontrunner is limited.
No real movement.
The veteran U.S. senator from South Carolina was surprisingly feeble in his debate performance in Cleveland. His prospects in the race are as they ever were: dismal. And that’s despite the fact that he is a favorite son in his home state, which goes third in the primary. But if he wants to stay in, he needs to improve his performance.
The former New York governor also used Trump to draft into the news cycle this week, saying he wouldn’t support the businessman if he were the GOP nominee. That will likely be the highlight of Pataki’s quixotic candidacy.