Donald Trump says he’s a counter-puncher. Ben Carson isn’t a puncher of any sort. In most cases, rather than attack Trump or respond to any of his attacks, Carson drives around the block and waits under the sycamore tree until the moment passes. Carson would rather stick to the issues, he says, and present himself as a calm, methodical contrast to the entertaining front-runner from Queens. It is a placidity that is central to Carson’s character.
This is going to make the third Republican debate fascinating to watch, because it presents Trump with two unfamiliar challenges. So far in this campaign he’s faced traditional obstacles that he’s shown are not challenges at all—his gaffes only make him more popular, his bombastic style isn’t too brash for voters, and his huge policy claims aren’t judged implausible. He has bested old-style challenges because he is in tune with a hungry grassroots electorate and he has his own special skills. But Carson represents a challenge fueled by that same electorate. Does Trump have the skills to match that?
The first test is that unlike other fights Trump has been in, here he needs to attack Carson head on. He’s taken on other candidates when they have attacked him as a display of domination—almost for sport. But his unprovoked attacks on Carson suggest that he sees his rise in the polls as a real threat—despite his claims that the polls showing Carson ahead are aberrations. He’s seen this threat for a while and has been begging Carson to hit him since September. Now he’s sick of waiting.
The second challenge Trump faces from Carson is that he doesn't respond to Trump the way the other candidates do. When Trump attacks Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor runs right on to Trump’s turf and tries to beat him at his game. Trump wins the Twitter wars. Carson isn’t playing that game—at least not yet. Trump will hope to draw him offside in Wednesday night’s debate. (And analysts will hope not to be drawn into too many mixed metaphors.)
Carson also presents Trump with perhaps the first real fact check of the campaign. Trump says he is a winner. The poll numbers have shown that. And he’s blown through at least half a dozen near-death experiences. He’s minting the validation for his own campaign as he runs it. But if Carson starts winning, especially in the face of Trump’s attacks and stratagems, it will undermine the heart of the Trump pitch. Trump may have explanations for why he might be losing, but that’s not going to sound right coming from the fellow who prizes winning above all and banishes all losers with their loser explanations.
So how does Trump handle this asymmetric threat? He could easily ignore it. He’s down in Iowa and one national poll, but he’s leading Carson everywhere else by a lot. If Ron Brownstein is right and Trump’s support among non-college educated voters is solid, then he’s got a strong floor of support. Let Carson wear the front-runner hat for a while and see if it stays on; Trump’s base isn’t going anywhere.
But Trump doesn’t look to be taking this wait-and-see approach. He has been acting recently like Carson is an existential threat. He’s not only raised questions about his religion out of the blue, but he’s charged that Carson’s super PAC in Iowa is operating illegally. (Trump’s charge is not that Carson is controlled by his big donors, which is what he charges about other candidates and their PACs; his charge is that the PAC effectively runs Carson’s campaign in Iowa, doing more than the campaign finance laws allow.) He’s also said Carson is even more low energy than Jeb and that he can’t create jobs. He’s also questioned his position on abortion.
It’s unclear how these attacks will play because Carson is a fellow outsider. When Trump attacks Bush, the merits of his case don’t matter to an electorate who doesn’t like politicians—and doesn’t like Bush particularly. But the GOP electorate likes Carson. In the most recent CBS Battleground Tracker poll, more voters in the key primary states said they would be OK with a Carson presidency than any other candidate. Almost 60 percent said they would not be OK with a Trump presidency.
And Carson isn’t fighting back, which means Trump will not only be hitting a guy voters seem to genuinely like, but he’s also risking the appearance that he’s doing it for no reason, which could backfire even worse.
The contest is a wonderful test of candidates’ ability to adapt their skills for the presidency. Carson is quiet, methodical, and padding along very successfully in his lane. He has promised as president he will be able to quickly take on the skills required for the office. Can he do that with a campaign? His new quasi front-runner status requires he take on new skills quickly. Can he show command of his answers in the debate? Can he deftly deflect or manage Trump’s needling and prodding?
For Trump the question is whether he can take on a challenger who won’t take the bait. He often talks about the “killers” he’s clobbered at the negotiating table. What has he done to the strong silent types?
Carson is reviving standards in a way that has’t worked for other candidates. He’s presenting himself as having the temperament and judgment to be president. We used to prize these things in our presidents. Carson isn’t criticizing Trump out loud yet (though his advisers are). He’s simply presenting himself as the adult alternative to the brash one.
That was Bush’s strategy in the first debate. It didn’t work. Ultimately Jeb had to try to engage and it has not gone well for him. His recent comments betray a certain frustration with the combat. “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me, and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that,” he said recently. That does not sound joyful.
Of all the candidates appearing Wednesday, Bush has the most on the line. If he has another translucent performance there will be more anonymous quotes like the brutal one in the Washington Post from a supporter saying his campaign was in a “death spiral.” A bad performance will again undermine the fundamental argument of his campaign, that he has the skills to win in a general election, attracting new voters to the GOP that none of the other candidates can. If you can’t communicate when it counts (in three debates), then you’re not likely to be able to communicate when it counts against the Democratic nominee.
The pressure has got to be immense. Bush has to seize a theatrical moment (something he’s not a fan of doing) in a venue that he isn’t naturally suited for. If he can pull it off, however, all the greater glory will come his way.
Sen. Marco Rubio has the most to gain. He’s been slowly rising, staying out of the Trump briar patch and watching his rivals get stuck there. Rubio could simply stick with that strategy and emerge one day as the Trump/Carson alternative who is palatable to some Tea Party voters but also non Tea Party voters as well. Or, he could seize the moment in the debate and present himself as a powerful force. It’s not clear what this means in practice exactly, but it feels like he’s ready to have his moment and a strong debate performance could launch it. As Barack Obama learned, you gain stature—something Rubio could use—by seizing moments in a campaign. By showing leadership you graft that quality on to yourself when you have no experience doing so. Of course, rising too fast also makes you a bigger target.
But Rubio is a pretty cautious guy. Gov. John Kasich seems like the fellow most likely to engage in a righteous act of “I can’t take it any more.” He’s already given the off-Broadway version of this, railing Tuesday at the zany ideas from various rivals. Will it work in the debate if he takes the show to a bigger audience? Or will he simply raise questions about Trump and Carson that allow Rubio to rise? (The Gephardt-attacks-Dean-and-helps-Kerry scenario of 2004.)
Gov. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina are also likely to come to the debate with some pepper in their pocket. Fiorina has boosted her chances through previous debates but has not shown staying power. Time for her to get another charge. Christie is presenting himself as the only candidate who can prosecute Hillary Clinton, so he has an interest in showing just what that would look like. Plus, of all the candidates other than Trump, he is the one whose message is most contained in his behavior.
After each debate there has been one Republican candidate who has succumbed to the reality of low poll numbers and empty bank accounts. With fewer than 100 days before the Iowa caucus, for some of the candidates taking the stage, this may be the last chance.