Saturday, December 19, 2015

Race for the White House 2016 Volume 51

The Holidays are in full gear, and the Presidential race is mainly the purview of political and cable news junkies.

Despite that, Democrats will meet on this pre-Christmas Saturday night to hold a debate in New Hampshire that by design, almost nobody will see. While the New Hampshire Primary looks like a tossup, Hillary Clinton continues to hold a substantial lead nationally over Bernie Sanders, with Martin O'Malley little more than an afterthought. It will be interesting tonight to see if Sanders and O'Malley try to be more aggressive against Clinton. There was a somewhat complicated incident late this week involving the Sanders campaign inappropriately accessing information about the Clinton campaign on a DNC database. That led the DNC to ban the Sanders campaign access, which in turn led to a lawsuit being filed. I believe some sort of resolution might have been worked out, but I am really not even sure and do not care unless somehow it propels Sanders to try to run as an Independent or third party candidate in the general election. That would be kind of cool, but it's doubtful. The DNC, despite their proclamations to the opposite, are widely seen as favoring Hillary Clinton in her march to the nomination.

As for my GOP side? Things are still a mess, but it is best for me and others like me to remain calm and wait for the new year. At least the first voting will take place in February and not in January. No matter what Donald Trump says or does, his fans stand by him and the fact that he dominates media coverage, getting something like 25 times the coverage of all other GOP candidates combined, makes him increase his lead in national polls. He said during a debate this week that he is committed to running as a Republican and will not launch a third party effort. Gee, I kind of just want him gone.

A big Iowa poll from last Saturday though shows Ted Cruz moving ahead of Trump by 10 points in the Hawkeye State. Cruz is surging, on the heels of Tea Party and Evangelical voters, while Ben Carson continues a slow fade. Cruz has to be the favorite to win Iowa, and that caused Trump to basically call him a "maniac" on tv news shows last weekend. Even Trump's biggest defenders in conservative talk radio said they did not like his doing that (as they ultimately want Cruz to be nominated), while Cruz refused to file back. Some people anticipated them clashing in Tuesday night's Nevada debate, but I really did not. Trump and Cruz did not share a cross word and appeared to be in an alliance.

There were other battles though on the debate stage, as Jeb Bush, the candidate I most want to be President, in nothing to lose mode, went forcefully and directly after Trump, something that no other candidate, with the small exception of Rand Paul, bothered to do that night. Bush's comments about Trump being the "chaos candidate" definitely appeared to get under Trump's skin and he reacted in his usual insulting ways. Bush received his best debate reviews yet, but can he really move the needle at this point? That remains to be seen. Trump is just absolutely Teflon up to this point. Perhaps his being endorsed by Russian President/dictator Vladmir Putin might concern people, especially since Trump warmly accepted the endorsement and praised Putin in return. When it was pointed out that Putin is believed to have had journalists and political opponents killed, Trump responded that the U.S. does a "lot of killing too." He actually wants to be President? People actually want him to be President? This is all fairly scary.

The most substantive fighting on the debate stage though occurred between the two Cuban-American freshman Senators. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz expressed disagreements over immigration policy, with Cruz trying to score points against Rubio, and over surveillance and defense issues, with the roles reversed. Rubio continues to be a talented communicator and a debater, but my sense was that Cruz drew some blood with his positioning to the right of Rubio on immigration and repeated use of the word "amnesty." They both may have hurt themselves through mutual combat.

There were many problems and inconsistencies in what Cruz said in the debate, both about Rubio and about his own past as a Senator and how he once appeared to be open to comprehensive immigration reform. Instead of defending himself, Rubio tried to lay a trap for Cruz, which Cruz took, that makes him look extremely disingenuous. The day after the debate, Cruz went on Fox News' Special Report, and while he continued his attacks on Rubio, he struggled mightily and embarrassingly to explain obvious inconsistencies. I imagined his campaign staff cringing as they watched him stumble all over himself in an obvious way. In past cycles, an interview like that could have been fatal for a Presidential campaign, but Trump and his success thus far in talking around everything appears to have changed things. All things considered, the debate probably did far more to help Cruz in the short term than Rubio, but Cruz exposed some of his own vulnerabilities as well. If Trump really remains a factor though next spring, how would that effect a battle between Rubio and Cruz? There are many variables.

One candidate that some also think scored points in the nine GOP candidate debate was Chris Christie (despite taking a stance that seemed to indicate that he was willing to start World War III by shooting down a theoretical Russian airplane in Syria). He pushed his experience as a U.S. Attorney and Governor in a post-9/11 world and said the fight over Cruz and Rubio over Senate records caused people's "eyes to glaze over." That might be true to a large extent.

While Christie had been increasingly critical of Trump's ridiculous proposals and statements last week, he did not say a word about them in the debate, and later in the week, while appearing on a conservative radio show, he seemed to reverse course and say that Trump was indeed a serious contender and that Jeb Bush was somehow wrong to claim otherwise. That seems to me to be an incredible amount of pandering. Christie has also been critical of Rubio's Senate attendance record, a tactic previously attempted by Bush, and other calls for Rubio to consider resigning from the Senate appear to be increasing. Even some of his supporters were upset yesterday when he was the only Republican Senator to miss a vote on a spending bill that has conservatives extremely angry. Rubio offered an explanation that not voting for the bill was the same in effect as voting against it.

All things considered, the Rubio campaign has had better weeks, but he still may be the best, if not only hope for mainstream conservatives who both want an honorable President, and someone who can actually beat Hillary Clinton and get elected. The tactics of Cruz, Trump, and others on the right though are likely to intensify against Rubio and how he handles the pressure will define much for him in early 2016.

Polls show Trump well ahead in New Hampshire at the moment, but the race for second and third place appears extremely tight featuring several candidates. Many feel that Christie might ultimately surge there, and that could indeed be a very bad thing for Rubio. If that were to happen though, it is worth nothing that Christie has virtually no organization or resources invested in any of the other early states or beyond. So, it's basically New Hampshire or nothing for Christie.

Can anyone eventually overtake Rubio as the "establishment" choice? If the Cruz and Rubio fight causes real damage, that is going to be a very important question. The fact of the matter is that Jeb Bush, as poorly as his campaign has gone in 2015, still has a ton of money and is believed to be well-organized in many states across the country. Could something crazy really wind up happening?


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