Cam­paign­ing — and com­pet­ing — be­yond Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - dan.balz@wash­post.com Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

The Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial con­test is not, re­gard­less of what it seems some days, all about Don­ald Trump. There’s another dy­namic un­fold­ing that has al­most noth­ing to do with the busi­ness­man politi­cian cur­rently atop the polls but that will have a ma­jor in­flu­ence on who be­comes the party’s nom­i­nee.

This other strug­gle in­volves the com­pe­ti­tion among for­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich. History sug­gests that who­ever emerges tri­umphant in this three-way ri­valry will be in a strong po­si­tion to claim the nom­i­na­tion, though ad­mit­tedly the past has been a poor pre­dic­tor of events so far in this cam­paign.

Ever since Trump surged to the top of the polls, the other can­di­dates have been try­ing to as­sess both his stay­ing power and the cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis of en­gag­ing him. Trump and Bush have clashed al­most from the start, with grow­ing in­ten­sity. More re­cently, as Ru­bio has risen, Trump has taken aim at him, and Ru­bio has re­sponded in kind.

None of the other can­di­dates has a clear strat­egy for tak­ing down Trump. But they all think he will look like a dif­fer­ent can­di­date — and in their assess­ments, a less for­mi­da­ble can­di­date — once the field narrows to three or four fi­nal­ists af­ter the vot­ing be­gins. So they are be­gin­ning to fo­cus on one another as much as they are wor­ry­ing about him.

With the first con­tests still months away, none of the three yet looks like a front-run­ner. In the av­er­age of re­cent na­tional polls, Ru­bio and Bush run fourth and fifth be­hind Trump, re­tired neu­ro­sur­geon Ben Car­son and for­mer Hewlett-Packard chief ex­ec­u­tive Carly Fio­r­ina. Nei­ther Bush nor Ru­bio breaks dou­ble dig­its. Ka­sich doesn’t even break 5 per­cent.

Na­tional polls at this stage are less mean­ing­ful than state polls. In Iowa, where the first cau­cus will take place in early Fe­bru­ary, Trump and Car­son lead, with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) cur­rently third. Bush and Ru­bio trail the first three, and Ka­sich is even deeper in the pack. In New Hamp­shire, Trump also has a big lead, but Ka­sich is jock­ey­ing with Fio­r­ina for sec­ond, with Car­son and Bush next and Ru­bio far­ther back.

In re­cent days, Bush, Ru­bio and Ka­sich have shown how much they’re wor­ry­ing about one another. They’ve been snip­ing at each other and mak­ing other moves that un­der­score the sig­nif­i­cance of their com­pe­ti­tion.

Ru­bio has long em­pha­sized that the party needs a fresh can­di­date, not one tied to the past, an im­plicit crit­i­cism of his fel­low Florid­ian who is part of an Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty. Bush, a two-term for­mer gover­nor, has be­lit­tled Ru­bio’s ex­pe­ri­ence, or lack thereof. Ka­sich, a two-term gover­nor and long­time House mem­ber, has claimed that his ex­pe­ri­ence and record are un­matched by any of the other can­di­dates.

Ad­vis­ers to the three an­tic­i­pate more at­tacks ahead. “The Bush cam­paign is fever­ishly do­ing their op­po­si­tion re­search on Gover­nor Ka­sich and Sen­a­tor Ru­bio,” said John Weaver, Ka­sich’s chief strate­gist. “An em­pire like that is not go­ing to go qui­etly into the night. We’re ex­pect­ing pretty sharp el­bows to be thrown. We’re go­ing to han­dle it head on.”

Past Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion con­tests of­ten have de­volved into com­pe­ti­tion be­tween a can­di­date from the cen­ter-right or main­stream con­ser­va­tive wing of the party and a can­di­date from the hard right or pop­ulist con­ser­va­tive wing. Most times, the can­di­date from the main­stream con­ser­va­tive wing be­comes the nom­i­nee.

This year, the race is more scram­bled be­cause of the added fac­tor of the ap­par­ent de­sire by many Repub­li­cans for an out­sider or non-politi­cian. That has el­e­vated Trump, Car­son and Fio­r­ina and has forced the oth­ers to adapt. Ru­bio has been stress­ing that, de­spite be­ing in the Se­nate, he’s re­ally not of Washington.

In­stead of es­tab­lish­ment vs. tea party, one GOP strate­gist de­scribes the race this time as a com­pe­ti­tion be­tween those in the anger, or anti-Washington, lane, vs. those in the as­pi­ra­tional lane. Bush, Ru­bio and Ka­sich all fall more into the as­pi­ra­tional lane.

What will make the dif­fer­ence? Based on how the three can­di­dates are run­ning, it’s clear that they see the path ahead in slightly dif­fer­ent ways, though each has hand­i­caps he must over­come to win.

Bush has re­peat­edly pushed back at Trump by ar­gu­ing that anger and in­sults can­not win the pres­i­dency. He seeks to be the as­pi­ra­tional can­di­date, con­ser­va­tive enough be­cause of his record in Florida to be ac­cept­able to a con­ser­va­tive party, while of­fer­ing a pos­i­tive and in­clu­sive mes­sage that reaches be­yond the GOP coali­tion.

But many Repub­li­cans see Bush as least able to ap­peal across the en­tire party — not much more able to ap­peal to the hard right than Cruz would be able to at­tract main­stream con­ser­va­tives.

Lodged firmly in the es­tab­lish­ment wing as the son and brother of for­mer pres­i­dents, he faces re­sis­tance on the far right and among those yearn­ing for an out­sider. His hope is that he can change per­cep­tions of him­self, out­last his ri­vals with su­pe­rior re­sources and per­suade Repub­li­cans that he’s their best hope to win a gen­eral elec­tion.

Sally Brad­shaw, Bush’s se­nior ad­viser, said the key re­mains what it has been from the start of the cam­paign: to por­tray Bush as a con­ser­va­tive re­former by stress­ing what he did in Florida. “Peo­ple don’t know that yet,” she said. “When that mes­sage burns in, his num­bers are go­ing to change. That’s his path.”

Ka­sich is look­ing to the tra­di­tional model. He is the com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tive of 2016 who hopes to strike first in New Hamp­shire and build from there. His ad­vis­ers be­lieve that, even­tu­ally, he can reach across the di­vide in the party to be­come the nom­i­nee.

But the party has not only moved right in the past decade, it also has de­vel­oped a harder edge than when Ge­orge W. Bush ran as a com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tive in 2000. Ka­sich’s sup­port for ex­pand­ing Med­i­caid un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act is just one ex­am­ple of a po­si­tion that will not sit well with many con­ser­va­tives.

Ru­bio’s team sees cross­cut­ting ap­peal as vi­tal, a race that will fa­vor a can­di­date who can best unite a frac­tured party. The sen­a­tor’s goal is to demon­strate skills as a com­mu­ni­ca­tor, to show depth on the is­sues, to turn his per­sonal story into a pos­i­tive mes­sage for the party, to make as few er­rors as pos­si­ble and over time gen­er­ate en­thu­si­asm across the GOP coali­tion.

Ru­bio, too, has vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. His past sup­port for a path to cit­i­zen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, from which he has backed away, re­mains an ob­sta­cle in his path. So too does his per­sonal pro­file, that of a youth­ful first-term sen­a­tor with lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence try­ing to be­come pres­i­dent — a pro­file not un­like that of Pres­i­dent Obama when he first ran eight years ago.

David Ax­el­rod, who was Obama’s chief strate­gist in both cam­paigns, of­ten has said that vot­ers look for a re­place­ment rather than a replica in pick­ing a new pres­i­dent. The ad­viser to one of Ru­bio’s ri­vals put it this way: “When was the last time this coun­try elected two pres­i­dents with sim­i­lar at­tributes?” Ru­bio will be try­ing to dis­suade his fel­low Repub­li­cans that he isn’t another Obama.

There are wild cards in the cal­cu­la­tions of all three camps. Maybe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who oc­cu­pies sim­i­lar space, will catch fire in New Hamp­shire and else­where, although the re­sis­tance to him within the party is sig­nif­i­cant. Fio­r­ina has demon­strated fear­less­ness that has jarred even Trump and can ap­peal across the party. Car­son re­mains a can­di­date of un­known po­ten­tial.

Last, there is the Trump fac­tor and what his sup­port rep­re­sents. For now, he re­mains the dom­i­nant force in the GOP race. But the ad­vis­ers to Bush, Ru­bio and Ka­sich see a turn in the cam­paign head­ing into the fi­nal months of the year, one that will heighten the com­pe­ti­tion among them with sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences for their party.

FRED­ERIC J BROWN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

From left: Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich, for­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.) have taken aim at one another in their bids

for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, think­ing that Don­ald Trump’s can­di­dacy will wane as the GOP field narrows.

JIM COLE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

GE­ORGE HORS­FORD/VIL­LAGES (FLA.) DAILY SUN VIA AP

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