Twists and Turns in the GOP Race

With tonight’s third debate in mind, let’s survey the field.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll puts Ben Carson at the top of the Republican presidential field for the first time, edging out Donald Trump 26% to 22%. That shift is significant, but so are some other events on the campaign trail. So with tonight’s third debate in mind, let’s survey the field.

The two candidates together still dominate the field overall, with the rest of the pack trailing in single digits. Marco Rubio is at 8%, and Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina each have 7%. (Fiorina’s post-debate bounce didn’t go very high or last long.) All the other candidates are below 4%.

The fact that neither of the two top candidates has held elective office before is precisely why they’re so popular at this political moment, but it’s also wearing thin on some of the “establishment” choices. Sen. Lindsey Graham (yeah, he’s still running) harvested some sour grapes on MSNBC earlier this week. “On our side, you’ve got the number two guy tried to kill somebody at 14,” Graham said, referring to a recent revelation about an angry teen Carson attempting to stab someone. “And the number one is high energy and crazy as hell. How am I losing to these people?”

Frankly, Lindsey, it’s probably because the prospect of your candidacy is about as exciting to the electorate as a glass of warm milk. And Graham must have seen the old “Saturday Night Live” skit of Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis marveling, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy” — meaning George H.W. Bush as played by Dana Carvey. President Dukakis always said that was a turning point in his campaign.

Republican primary voters are clearly ready to shed the status quo. Trump, for all his faults, has articulated a popular rage among voters who are tired of the same old shenanigans that have devalued the GOP brand in recent years. Carson is offering a more grounded alternative in that, like Trump, he is a Washington outsider, but he doesn’t bring along Trump’s emotional baggage and big mouth.

The CBS/New York Times poll noted that Carson has been making inroads with key Republican groups. Carson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, has a 20-point lead over Trump among evangelicals, and he is now ahead of the real estate mogul with women.

Trump still maintains an edge in the loyalty department, though. While many Republican primary voters have yet to commit to a candidate, more than half of Trump’s supporters have made up their minds that they will vote for him, and 70% of Republicans now view him as the most electable.

Jeb Bush, whose campaign has gone from a sure win to life support, has also expressed bitterness at the so-called upstart candidates. Last weekend in South Carolina, Bush had this to say:

“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then … I don’t want any part of it. I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”

“I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do”? These are not the words of a serious presidential candidate. And another tip for the Bush dynasty scion — don’t tell people to vote for your opponent. They just might listen to you.

Bush’s frustrations at having to tangle with Trump are compounded by his campaign’s money woes. He was the top fundraiser among the Republican candidates in the last cycle, but he has spent 86% of the $13.4 million he raised over the last three months. Ted Cruz, Rubio and Carson all have more money on hand than Bush at this point. Bush has even cut campaign salaries. Watch for top-level campaign people to start heading for the exits; that will be the surest sign of a doomed candidacy.

Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush tried carrying water for his brother by taking some pot shots at Sen. Ted Cruz, labeling him as opportunistic. An odd comment, but one designed to take heat off Jeb. Conversely, though, it elevated Cruz and will work to his advantage.

Cruz has been slowly but surely amassing a serious campaign challenge. While his national polling remains low, he has the second largest campaign war chest, raising $12.2 million last quarter. He currently has more cash on hand than any other candidate, and he has been gathering an enormous number of small-dollar donations, suggesting a strong grassroots base of support.

Some even suggest Cruz is the best positioned Republican running for president right now.

And what of Marco Rubio? The man once considered to be the future of the Republican party has his own issues. Recent remarks suggest that he has had his fill of the Senate, and he is glad to be leaving to focus exclusively on his presidential campaign. The role of senator, which once put stars in Rubio’s eyes, has essentially bored and frustrated him. The chamber moves too slow, it’s mired in political gridlock, and is tied down by too many rules. A fair assessment, but it is the Senate which has given Rubio his national platform. Turning his back on it so publicly is a gamble. It could endear him to voters who are eager for an outsider’s perspective, but it could just as easily make him look intemperate and impatient.

There are also some other guys running in the GOP field who aren’t garnering much in the way of headlines. Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore aren’t finding much oxygen in the room right now, and they’re hanging on in part because the field is so big. Tonight’s debate could be clarifying, however, and we expect to see one or two candidates head for the exit in the coming days.

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