Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have a chance Wednesday to prove they’re for real.
By Alex Isenstadt
LOS ANGELES — It’s only the second of 12 scheduled GOP debates. But Wednesday’s primetime showdown at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley is poised to play a decisive role in culling the crowded Republican field.
In interviews conducted over the last week, more than a dozen top officials, donors and aides to the GOP presidential candidates laid out their expectations for the primetime debate, and provided insights into their preparations and strategic thinking.
1) Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have something to prove.
The Reagan Library debate will put the spotlight on the two candidates who surged in the polls following the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland: Carson and Fiorina.
Both have tangled with Trump in recent days, but they plan to deal with the real estate mogul in very different ways.
Due to his second place standing in the polls, Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, will stand next to Trump on the stage. But despite the proximity – and the fact that last week Carson got into his first sparring match with the billionaire — those close to Carson say he’s not likely to go after Trump again because it would detract from his mission: carving out a profile as a different kind of politician.
Carson’s greatest strength, many campaign operatives believe, is that he projects warmth. An adviser to one rival candidate said that Carson got a boost in the first debate because viewers watching at home in their living rooms perceived him as a polite, soft-spoken guest.
The Carson camp appreciates the need to cut a different kind of profile – and it’s reflected in the doctor’s debate prep. He prefers poring over written material, and spent Tuesday “relaxing” in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he lives, according to communications director Doug Watts.
“Looking and being different is of high value,” said another person close to Carson.
For Fiorina, however, confronting Trump is a tactical necessity. The sole woman in the GOP race, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has attacked Trump for his remarks about her physical appearance (“Look at that face”) and turned it to her advantage; her supporters expect her to do the same onstage.
“She will not be intimidated one bit,” said Keith Appell, an adviser to a super PAC supporting Fiorina. “She counter-punches a lot better than these other guys.”
2) Wednesday will be an endurance test.
The first debate on Fox News clocked in at a little less than two hours. The CNN debate Wednesday will run nearly an hour longer – somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 hours, 45 minutes.
The network says the longer format will draw out the candidates on policy specifics. In a recent conversation with one campaign, moderator Jake Tapper said he saw the evening as an opportunity to define where each contender stood on major issues and to clearly delineate differences between them.
There’s just one problem – three hours is a heckuva long time to be standing on stage under the hot lights.
Many of campaigns hate the idea of an extended debate, which several veterans of presidential politics say is one of the longest in recent memory. One campaign adviser, who described the planned program as a “mental and physical” endurance test, said he was preparing his candidate by standing him behind a podium for several hours while peppering him with detailed policy questions.
The aide pointed out that the debate is so long that candidates need to worry about their water intake. “You need to go into the debate with an empty bladder,” the aide said.
The duration of the debate is no joke to the candidates: on Tuesday evening, CNN clarified its restroom policy to the campaigns. One bathroom break is permitted during the third commercial break, which lasts four minutes and 30 seconds.
Then there are the relatively small dimensions of the debate stage. The size of the stage – and the large number of candidates crowded on it – means there will be less than two feet separating each podium. That lack of distance between podiums has raised red flags for campaigns, leading Ben Ginsburg, a respected election attorney who is advising Walker, to grouse openly during a recent conference call with CNN officials.
3) Scott Walker is feeling the heat.
No one is under greater pressure than Walker, the one-time frontrunner who nosedived in the polls after a lackluster performance in the first debate.
During a late August campaign staff meeting in Madison, Mari Will, a top Walker adviser and the wife of conservative columnist George Will, outlined what the governor intended to do differently in the second debate. Unlike last time, Walker would use all his allotted time rather than giving it back, one person in attendance recalled Will saying. The governor wouldn’t simply answer the moderators’ questions, she added. Rather, he would pivot off them and describe his personal story.
And, she said, he would be aggressive.
Walker has been busy prepping for the critical second debate, holding a late August practice session in New York City. Anything less than a strong showing could spell trouble.
To some nervous financial backers, Walker is in need of a reset – talk that will surely intensify if he disappoints on Wednesday. “Nothing like a little success to quiet things down,” said one hopeful Walker donor.
4) Bush vs. Trump, round 2.
There are 11 accomplished candidates on stage, but Jeb Bush and Donald Trump are expected to be the main event.
After a sluggish performance in the first debate, those close to Bush say he’s armed and ready for battle with the smash-mouth real estate mogul who’s mocked and attacked the former governor and punctured a hole in Bush’s aura of invincibility.
Bush, hoping to quiet the concerns of financial benefactors who’ve groused that he hasn’t fought back hard enough against Trump, has been huddling with a tight-knit group of aides and familiarizing himself with the granular details of Trump’s record. Those close to Bush say to expect plenty of jabs aimed at Trump’s past support for Democratic causes.
When they do go after one another, Bush and Trump will be in one another’s faces – literally. CNN used poll standings to determine the order the candidates would appear on stage, leaving Trump center stage, flanked by Carson to his right and Bush to his left.
An assault on Trump, however, is a risky endeavor for Bush. To some worried Bush allies, the tactic is tantamount to getting in a street fight with a professional street fighter.
But after spending the last few weeks aggressively confronting Trump, there’s a sense among some Back supporters that it’s too late for Bush to turn back now. Some likened his position to that of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who in 2012 was ridiculed after he refused to go after Mitt Romney onstage – even though he had done so only days earlier in a TV interview.
5) Rand Paul goes back to basics.
When he first launched his campaign, Rand Paul described himself as “libertarian-ish” – in other words, a scaled-back version of the outspoken libertarian vision he once embraced.
Now, with his poll numbers cratering and on the verge of becoming an afterthought in the primary contest, Paul will return to articulating the core views that catapulted him to national prominence – and he sees the debate as the ideal place to do it.
Those close to Paul say he plans to distinguish himself by focusing on his non-interventionist views on foreign policy, a flat tax, congressional term limits, and abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.
“He’ll grab the reformer mantle,” said Chip Englander, Paul’s campaign manager.
For Paul, who watched his father wage three losing presidential campaigns, the pressure is on to show some signs of life. Because back home in Kentucky, some power players are beginning to wonder if it’s almost time for him to throw in the towel in the presidential race and focus on running for re-election to the Senate.
(Alex Isenstadt is a reporter for Politico.)