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Fiorina soars as Trump bores

| Thursday, September 17, 2015

Wednesday evening’s second GOP presidential debate reinforces the adage that the race for the presidency is a slow crawl that methodically scrutinizes the current frontrunner to measure that candidate’s resilience. The media thrives on stories of frontrunners who stumble or underdogs who prevail against overwhelming odds. Journalists pounce like a pack of jackals on frontrunners at the slightest hint of weakness. As a result of their herd-like assaults, the presidential electoral process steadily peels back the frontrunner’s personal façades to eventually expose each candidate’s character and persona. This week’s debate clearly skinned the frontrunner and shuffled support among the other top 10 contenders.

While replete with policy specifics and rhetorical zingers, the three-hour exchange shaped clear winners and losers. The biggest loser of the night was real estate mogul Donald Trump, who led with 23 percent support. The media orchestrated him to easily overexpose himself as the hollow-shell candidate many pundits had predicted. His facial gestures were nearly always frownies. His blunt New York shtick wore on so much that nobody wants to have a martini with him in his tower. It is only a matter of time now until his anti-establishment support dwindles like hot air leaking from a balloon.

On the other hand, Carly Fiorina, a fellow CEO formerly with Hewlett-Packard who entered the stage with a mere four percent in the polls, clearly outperformed the pack. Her passion, strength and eloquence in opposition to funding for Planned Parenthood and while describing her stepdaughter’s drug overdose death unveiled a persona few had previously seen. She lived up to expectations so much that she quite possibly has already earned herself serious consideration as a vice presidential contender.

The debate established the 11 top card winners, losers and survivors. Besides Trump, this week’s losers who could not inspire beyond a catch phrase included Ben Carson for a lackluster performance; Scott Walker for his Richard Nixon shiny, sweaty face; Ted Cruz, who looks like Monty Burns from “The Simpsons”; and John Kasich, who advocates great moderate positions but communicates like he is constipated. As strange and irrational as these reasons might seem, voters are selectively scrutinizing the candidates at this stage of the process.

The survivors who may come back another day are Rand Paul because he is Libertarian at heart; Mike Huckabee, who has a small but loyal base; Chris Christie, who is the loud, northeastern alter-Trump; and Marco Rubio, who has a compelling story although he still seems uncomfortable on stage. These candidates are like the reality show middle scores who are simply dismissed to come back next week. Some of them sit on the bubble and will fall in the near future.

Other than Fiorina, Jeb Bush is the winner because the party apparatus is tilted toward him and his insider family. Bush showed some pep along with his routinely low-key and bland approach. Yet, for all of the media hype now about the outsiders’ support and success, Bush is the odds-on favorite to win the nomination by slogging through the marathon a step or two at a time. After all, this is the infancy of the campaign season with many events, elections, caucuses and delegates yet to win.

Any presidential scholar will caution that the campaign’s infancy is a voters’ discovery period when most support is fluid. During this early months’ exploration period of the campaign, voters window-shop for their candidates before settling on their final choices. It is not unusual for them to hop from one candidate to another as polling and popularity ebbs and flows. The Republican 2012 election cycle is a good case study.

One need not be a professional political pundit or presidential scholar — mere political junkies understand presidential dynamics as well — to have chuckled at Newt Gingrich’s wide-eyed claim that he would be the nominee while on Dec. 13, 2011, he sat atop his highest level of support at 35 percent. The Real Clear Politics interactive map of poll averages charts the rise and fall of every 2012 Republican candidate until one survived the grueling campaign season.

Prior to December, Mitt Romney led until Aug. 25, when Rick Perry surpassed Romney. But, oops, on Oct. 4, Romney overtook the dead Perry campaign only to be ousted by Herman Cain on Oct. 20. Then Gingrich dethroned Romney on Nov. 21. However, the lead swapped five more times — back to Romney on Jan. 4, lost to Gingrich on Jan. 24, again to Romney on Feb. 3, but then 10 days later to Rick Santorum and finally back to Romney on Feb. 29 for the duration of the campaign. It proves that once a frontrunner faces severe scrutiny and prevents the luster from tarnishing, that campaign should not come unstitched at the seams.

Let history be our guide as shoppers beware. Four years ago today, Sept. 18, 2011, the GOP field sat at Rick Perry with 29.2 percent, Mitt Romney with 19 percent, Ron Paul with nine percent, Michele Bachmann with 7.5 percent, Newt Gingrich with 5.8 percent, Herman Cain with 4.8 percent, Rick Santorum with 2.3 percent and Jon Huntsman at less than a percentage point. The sure bet of the day back then was the insider establishment guy — Romney. The system has not changed, so expect a Bush-Fiorina ticket a year from today.


Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him on Twitter: @GaryJCaruso or email: [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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