Here (alphabetically) is the field of Republican candidates for president — their strengths, weaknesses, and prospects.
Jeb Bush: He properly announced as “his own man” and immediately assembled his father’s has-beens, even including 84-year-old Jim Baker, whom he then repudiated. Jeb is not, he assures us, his father or brother, yet he keeps mentioning them, even in his latest email appeal (“my dad’s the greatest man alive”). Jeb flubs easily anticipated questions, in an endless clarification loop. He has not developed new issues, except his inexplicable advocacy of free junior college. He seems passive, so that Trump’s attack (“Jeb is no energy”) is devastating. Unless Jeb can emerge as more than a nice guy and stop pouting, his $100 million super PAC war chest will be ineffectual. Mitt Romney has a better chance at the nomination.
Ben Carson: An earnest candidate with a story to tell, he has intense and growing support. His voters are high propensity. He is seen as a man of character, though he needs depth on issues. Supporters see his halting delivery as calm and deliberative. His rise in the polls will yield big dollars in direct mail. He can’t be ruled out as a vice-presidential nominee. He could calmly confront Trump and win the next debate and, then, who knows?
Chris Christie: He and Trump could have co-authored The Art of the Insult; but with Trump in the race, Christie is no longer dismissed as a bully. Style aside, Christie has no base. Christie, Kasich and Rubio would still waste time on marijuana prosecutions. His fifteen minutes of fame was putting Ron Paul down in the first debate, and the two may compete for the tenth spot in the upcoming CNN debate. If Christie makes that debate, never underestimate his ability to recover. He’s pugnacious and quick on his feet, especially with the weight loss. He might emerge in the sound bite as the anti-Trump.
Ted Cruz: He is intelligent and principled. He plays the long game, staying positive toward other candidates. His decision to praise Trump suggests Cruz (a) wants Trump to battle others, and (b) hopes to inherit Trump supporters if Trump falters; but (c) would be open to being Trump’s vice-presidential nominee. Walker, defending Cruz against Beltway Republicans, must hope Cruz would eventually defer to him. Walker must be smoking, and the other candidates might bypass federalism to prosecute.
Carly Fiorina: She has grown tremendously as a campaigner since her disappointing U.S. Senate race in 2010 against lightweight incumbent Barbara Boxer. Revisionist history nicely defends her ouster as Hewlett-Packard CEO. If her polling numbers hold up, CNN now will allow include her in the September 16 debate, saving CNN and the RNC from embarrassment. She is feisty and capable of taking on Trump, who will say, “But I was nice and wanted you included. Why aren’t you nice to me?” Aggressive but civil, she is the compromise outsider, between name-calling Trump and understated Carson. But her niche is as the anti-Hillary. What if it’s Biden? Regardless, she could be someone’s vice-presidential nominee.
Jim Gilmore: He is respected but has little support. He will not be the vice-presidential nominee. Time to go.
Lindsey Graham: He became a prop for Donald Trump. He should unclutter the race.
Mike Huckabee: There is too much competition for the social conservatives. A plurality of evangelicals supports heretic Trump, indicating the traditional strategy of pandering may be obsolete. Indeed, Trump is buying up Iowa true-believer activists who, it turns out, are for sale. Meanwhile, both Huckabee and religious rival Santorum try to define an elusive blue-collar conservatism. At the very least, Huckabee needs Santorum (and others) out, but that won’t happen soon enough.
Bobby Jindal: He is brainy but comes across as a policy wonk. Whatever his eclectic message (efficiency and religion), it does not resonate. He could be someone’s vice-presidential nominee if he drops out sooner rather than later.
John Kasich: He might be supported by Jeb Bush backers if Jeb falters, making Kasich even less trusted by movement conservatives. Kasich is long on resume, short on novelty. Kasich is not exciting but emerges in debates as experienced and knowledgeable, sincere and real. Trump has raised the bar, so that Kasich must prove (a) he is not status quo, (b) he will not bore, and (c) he is not just another “W” “compassionate conservative.” On paper, a Kasich (Ohio)-Rubio (Florida) ticket, if not exciting, looks plausible and could emerge, if not through the primaries, then at a brokered convention.
George Pataki: There was no traction when he challenged Trump on immigration. He will be not be anyone’s running mate. Like Gilmore, he should drop out and endorse someone, soon, while his endorsement might seem important.
Rand Paul: Rand started brilliantly as a libertarian Jack Kemp reaching out with novel issues, like criminal justice reform. But he was unable to synthesize a coherent foreign policy. Worse, his father Ron Paul, whether in doomsday radio-television commercials, or blaming French policy in Algeria sixty years ago for this year’s terrorist attack in Paris, or praising Iran while supporting the Iran deal, has effectively sabotaged his son’s campaign. Until Rand Paul drops out to run for Senate reelection, he may continue to do the dirty work of others by attacking Trump as a crony capitalist and possibly help them, not himself.
Rick Perry: He gambled that attacking Trump would revive his campaign. Instead, he did not even make the first debate. He showed he had problems months ago when he boasted that he could “regurgitate” what he had learned from his experts. He should drop out before the next debate and endorse someone else soon. Like so many, he may delay dropping out, or wait on an endorsement.
Marco Rubio: Bright and articulate and the least mistake-prone, he looks younger than he is. He needs to slow down his delivery and stop being a well-modulated recording. As a glib and youthful first-term senator, he ominously reminds some conservatives of the current president. Therefore, Rubio needs to project executive ability. His paying-off-student-loans-just-a-few-years-ago might appeal in a general election match against wealthy Hillary, but it’s not yet working in the primary, where the ostentatiously rich guy is still #1. Rubio could benefit if both Cruz and Walker decline in polls. The only way for a candidate to defeat Trump is not to wound him but score a knockout. Is Rubio or anyone else up to a challenge? If I were working for Rubio, I’d make him David to Trump’s Goliath.
Rick Santorum: To his theme of faith and family, this year he added the working poor and the middle class under siege. He is an energetic campaigner, but his time is past, as evidenced by his one percent in the latest Iowa poll. When the Presbyterian hedonist is ahead in Iowa, we know Santorum can’t pull a bible out of the hat this time.
Donald Trump: Huckabee, Rubio, Santorum, and Walker tweaked their rhetoric toward working-class populism. Ironically, and counter-intuitively, billionaire Trump does it better. Trump’s critics in the Republican Party see him as a big-government crony capitalist, but the grassroots doesn’t care about seemingly arcane Koch-brothers issues like defunding the Export-Import Bank. Trump is the most effective and daring campaigner in recent American history. Oddly, some conservatives who fret about Obama’s usurpation of power welcome Trump as a strong executive. Trump now must focus on the Iran deal and serious issues and appear less impulsive, otherwise he will peak with over-exposure and as voters worry about his temperament as the nation’s commander-in-chief. Trump says he wishes the primary elections were now. But if other candidates stay in, with their support widely dispersed, Trump could still keep a plurality in each state. Unless possible winner-take-all states instead become proportional for their delegates, Trump could be the nominee. But any changes in party rules or primary-state procedures could give Trump the rationale to run as a third-party candidate. Perhaps before, or at, the second debate, he’ll foreclose that option. Could states then still change their rules? But widespread proportional delegations could produce a convention deadlock and Mitch Daniels.
Scott Walker: Conservatives admired how he courageously and successfully stood up to government unions, but his comparing them to ISIS was his defining blunder. His tired “won-three-elections in four years in a blue state” mantra is for PACS, not voters. He seems weak. He talks quickly in redundant sound bites (“big bold agenda”) and is visibly implausible on foreign policy. He most recently speculated about a U.S.-Canadian wall. After the Supreme Court marriage decision, he should have pivoted to the new battle – to champion religious freedom. Instead, he advocated a nonstarter constitutional amendment to override the decision. He would prohibit abortions even when the life of the mother is in danger. He may be unelectable in a general election.