Be­hind Trump blus­ter, a tough race takes shape

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Don­ald Trump took cen­ter stage at the first ma­jor Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial de­bate Thurs­day, but a strong show­ing from less brash can­di­dates re­vealed a strong field and a fiercely com­pet­i­tive race ahead.

Trump in­sulted co­me­dian Rosie O’Don­nell boasted about his At­lantic City casino busi­ness and got jeered by what should have been a sym­pa­thetic crowd.

But Trump may have gained more pub­lic­ity than polling points dur­ing a dis­jointed and frac­tious two-hour de­bate.

Mean­while to his left and right, a host of can­di­dates — from for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker, to Sen. Marco Ru­bio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — ce­mented their sta­tus as se­ri­ous con­tenders.

Thurs­day’s de­bate of­fered each of the nine other can­di­dates on stage a rare chance to burst through the crowded field in which many can­di­dates have yet to poll in dou­ble dig­its. And what an op­por­tu­nity it was. The first Repub­li­can de­bate of the 2012 elec­tion cy­cle drew around three mil­lion tele­vi­sion view­ers. Pre­dic­tions for Thurs­day night’s spec­ta­cle ran up to 15 mil­lion, by far the most of any pri­mary de­bate ever.

But with the stakes so high, most chose to play it safe, leav­ing the mod­er­a­tors to chal­lenge the fron­trun­ner Trump, while fo­cus­ing on be­ing seen as sub­stan­tive and pres­i­den­tial.

“No one made any kind of gi­gan­tic gaff that was go­ing to end the game for them,” said Ge­of­frey Skelley of the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics.

Only Rand Paul — who comes from the out-of-fash­ion lib­er­tar­ian wing of the party — took on Trump di­rectly, ac­cus­ing him of buy­ing politi­cians.

The rest fo­cused on in­tro­duc­ing them­selves to vot­ers.

Walker, who made a name for him­self fight­ing trade unions, po­si­tioned him­self as an “ag­gres­sively nor­mal” Mid­west­erner — a re­gion that could be key to the elec­tion out­come.

He also made some head­way in ad­dress­ing his weak­nesses on for­eign pol­icy, stress­ing the need for al­liances in Arab Gulf states.

“He maybe ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions on for­eign pol­icy ques­tions and for him that has to look good,” Skelley said.

“There are prob­a­bly some in­sid­ers in the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment and the Repub­li­can donor class who are still un­cer­tain about him.”

U.S. Sen­a­tor from Florida Marco Ru­bio — per­haps the fiercest po­lit­i­cal tal­ent in the pool — pre­sented him­self as the em­bod­i­ment of the Amer­i­can dream, a son of im­mi­grants who made a new life in Amer­ica af­ter flee­ing Cuba.

With one eye on the gen­eral elec­tion, he man­aged to draw sharp con­trast with the likely Demo­cratic can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“Ru­bio did a re­ally good job point­ing out that he would be a great con­trast with Hil­lary Clin­ton if she is the demo­cratic nom­i­nee in that he would try to run a fu­ture ver­sus the past cam­paign,” Skelley said.

“His would be the fu­ture, she would be the past.”

Top f undraiser Jeb Bush stum­bled into the evening af­ter a dif­fi­cult week where he drew fire for ex­press­ing un­cer­tainty about need­ing “half a bil­lion dol­lars for women’s health is­sues.”

As the brother and son of for­mer pres­i­dents, he leaned heav­ily on his ex­pe­ri­ence as Florida gover­nor to dis­tin­guish him­self.

“Bush had one goal in mind, and that was to con­vince vot­ers that he is not his brother or his fa­ther, that he is his own man and has his own poli­cies,” said Peter Brown, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity Poll.

“It seemed that he did a very good job of ex­plain­ing who he was.”

Christie, mean­while, showed a lit­tle of his New Jersey grit, say­ing for­mer gover­nor Mike Huck­abee was “just wrong” in his cal­cu­la­tions on so­cial se­cu­rity, and at­tack­ing Paul on his stance on home­land se­cu­rity.

Knock-down-drag-out

Ul­ti­mately Thurs­day night may say very lit­tle about who Repub­li­cans will anoint as a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee a year from now in the same Cleve­land arena.

But sev­eral can­di­dates are still in a po­si­tion to cre­ate a buzz that fu­els fundrais­ing and builds mo­men­tum run­ning in to the Iowa and New Hamp­shire pri­maries early in 2016.

That is likely to sig­nal another knock-down-drag-out Repub­li­can pri­mary like 2012, when candi- dates surged only to fall into ir­rel­e­vance.

“We have an enor­mous amount of time to go,” said Brown. “Iowa is seven months away. The ques­tion is who can keep the money flow­ing.”

“It is quite pos­si­ble that the pri­maries in April will still be de­ter­mi­na­tive,” he said.

As for Trump, his greater rel­e­vance may hinge on what hap­pens if he doesn’t get the nom­i­na­tion.

The self- fund­ing bil­lion­aire’s pointed re­fusal to rule out a third party run or to en­dorse the even­tual nom­i­nee will give party poohbahs shivers.

“Any­one with a pulse will know that, if he were to run as an in­de­pen­dent, that’s ex­actly the kind of move that might help Hil­lary Clin­ton win,” said Skelley.

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