The Trump Conundrum

How should his Republican rivals handle him at next week’s debate? And who might inherit his supporters?

Republican Presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump talks to the media at a press conference during his trip to the border on July 23, 2015 in Laredo, Texas. Trump's recent comments, calling some immigrants from Mexico as drug traffickers and rapists, have stirred up reactions on both sides of the aisle. Although fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has denounced Trump's comments and his campaign in general, U.S. Senator from Texas Ted-Cruz has so far refused to bash his fellow Republican nominee.
Getty Images
July 31, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Au­gust is ar­riv­ing, and we are en­ter­ing week six of Don­ald Trump’s rise — first in­to the double di­gits, now in­to first place — in the na­tion­al polls for the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary race. While there are few if any ex­per­i­enced GOP pros or polit­ic­al re­port­ers who think Trump can ac­tu­ally win the nom­in­a­tion, it’s hard to ar­gue with where he is right now. Even after his un­for­tu­nate re­mark ques­tion­ing the hero­ism of Sen. John Mc­Cain — who was held cap­tive and tor­tured for five and a half years in a North Vi­et­namese pris­on­er-of-war camp while Trump cooled his heels stateside on one draft de­fer­ment after an­oth­er (stu­dent, then med­ic­al) — the bom­bast­ic real-es­tate mogul re­mains at the head of the Re­pub­lic­an pack.

Don­ald Trump talks to the me­dia dur­ing his trip to Laredo, Texas, Ju­ly 23, 2015. (Mat­thew Busch/Getty Im­ages)The fact that Trump’s very con­ser­vat­ive, anti-im­mig­ra­tion, mil­it­antly anti-es­tab­lish­ment, and — most im­port­ant — angry back­ers nev­er cared much for the in­de­pend­ent and some­times-mod­er­ate Mc­Cain helps to ex­plain why the com­ment had so little ef­fect on the busi­ness­man’s poll num­bers. But the Mc­Cain in­cid­ent also sug­gests that, while Trump’s can­did­acy is al­most cer­tainly destined to fail, he is less likely to pop like a bal­loon than to de­flate gradu­ally, like a car tire with a leak. Re­pub­lic­an poll­sters and strategists privately sug­gest that his tra­ject­ory will re­semble a bell curve: a roughly sym­met­ric­al rise and fall, much like those then-Rep. Michele Bach­mann and busi­ness­man Her­man Cain ex­per­i­enced in 2011.

Chris Cil­lizza, who writes The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s fea­ture “The Fix” (and is a former col­league of mine), high­lighted the es­sence of the Trump mes­sage by point­ing to a re­mark made by bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man, Dal­las Mav­er­icks own­er, and Trump sup­port­er Mark Cuban: “I don’t care what his ac­tu­al po­s­i­tions are. I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. He says what’s on his mind. He gives hon­est an­swers rather than pre­pared an­swers. This is more im­port­ant than any­thing any can­did­ate has done in years.”

That com­ment not only boils down Trump’s ap­peal, it also high­lights the ques­tion faced by the nine Re­pub­lic­ans who will share the stage with Trump on Au­gust 6 in Clev­e­land: How do you handle someone like this in a de­bate? Earli­er this week, Tae­gan God­dard’s web­site, Polit­ic­al­, pub­lished as the quote of the day a tweet by John Weaver, who was a top aide to the 2008 Mc­Cain cam­paign and is work­ing with Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s cam­paign this time around. In it, Weaver de­scribes the di­lemma: “Ima­gine a NAS­CAR driver men­tally pre­par­ing for a race know­ing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prep­ping for this de­bate is like.” (While it is un­clear wheth­er Kasich will make the cut to be in­cluded in the de­bate, Weaver’s ana­logy is apt.)

So how should the rest of the GOP field handle the de­bate? All of them would prob­ably be­ne­fit from fol­low­ing the vul­gar but apt South­ern ad­vice, “Don’t get in­to a piss­ing match with a skunk.” My hunch, however, is that the strategies of former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, both of whom are cer­tain to be among the top-10 can­did­ates in the na­tion­al polls, and both of whom come from the more con­ven­tion­al and main­stream wing of the party, will be very dif­fer­ent from those of the can­did­ates from the more exot­ic wing of the GOP. (It should be noted that, while Ru­bio was elec­ted to the Sen­ate in 2010 as a tea-party can­did­ate, in Wash­ing­ton he has pur­sued a more con­ven­tion­al, buttoned-down ap­proach.)

For Bush and Ru­bio (and Kasich if he makes the cut), the best ad­vice would prob­ably be to stay out of Trump’s way. Fo­cus on mak­ing a pos­it­ive im­pres­sion on — and hope­fully con­nect­ing with — Re­pub­lic­an primary voters and caucus at­tendees. Each of them should have a game plan for achiev­ing those goals and stick to it, al­most no mat­ter what Trump does. Ap­prox­im­ately 60 per­cent of GOP primary voters be­long to that more con­ven­tion­al wing of the party — and while that num­ber is lower in Iowa, it is still not low enough to make it sens­ible for these can­did­ates to court the an­ger crowd.

But for Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Car­son, former Gov. Mike Hucka­bee, Sen. Rand Paul, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and, if he makes the cut, former Sen. Rick San­tor­um — all of whom are run­ning from a dis­tinctly more ideo­lo­gic­al wing of the party — a wise strategy would be not only to fol­low the afore­men­tioned ad­vice but also to demon­strate enough an­ger that they plaus­ibly stand to in­her­it Trump’s sup­port­ers if he does start to drop in the polls.

When asked which can­did­ates might lo­gic­ally be­ne­fit if — or, more likely, when — Trump de­flates, some smart and un­af­fili­ated Re­pub­lic­an strategists homed in on two: Cruz and New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie. While on the sur­face they are very dif­fer­ent people, Cruz and Christie both ar­gu­ably chan­nel an­ger more ef­fect­ively than their rivals and might be able to tap in­to that en­ergy if Trump starts bleed­ing sup­port. Cruz ar­tic­u­lates an ex­tremely con­ser­vat­ive, anti-Wash­ing­ton form of an­ger. Christie’s ire is not quite so ideo­lo­gic­al but still pretty con­ser­vat­ive, and he vents it well; as with Trump, no one ever ac­cused Christie of pulling his punches. Al­though oth­ers might be able to latch onto some Trump de­fect­ors — polls sug­gest he has drawn sup­port away from at least four or five of his rivals — these two seem like pretty lo­gic­al be­ne­fi­ciar­ies of a Trump exit. Which could make next week’s de­bate an es­pe­cially im­port­ant one for them.

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