- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2015


CLEVELAND — Diversity. Youthful charm and wit. Steely determination. Success in governing. Record fundraising acumen. Even a showman able to tap into America’s deep-seated anger with the ruling political class.

The presidential hopefuls on stage Thursday night for the first official debate of the 2016 campaign season put on display the depth and potential of a talented field that Republicans have wanted for more than a decade.

What remains to be seen is whether one of the 17 can emerge in the grueling months ahead as a skilled coalition builder, able to sew together the often-conflicting wishes of the Grand Old Party and head into a general election with the necessary appeal it takes to win over independents.

There is zero expectation that any winning coalitions will begin forming around candidates anytime soon. It’s likely that Donald will lead the field for a while and many others can stay afloat thanks to donors.

After all, super PACs able to receive and spend unlimited dollars now rival or exceed the candidates’ own campaign war chests. This means far more candidates will be able to afford to stay in for the long haul.

That means there could be plenty of fight, and entertainment, all the way to next year’s convention in Cleveland.

That prospect feeds into conservatives’ nightmare that envisions their candidates dividing the conservative vote enough to let a moderate squeeze through to the nomination — yet again.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who already has amassed a jaw-dropping $120 million in combined donations to his campaign and supporting super PACs, is one of several candidates who give pause to many conservatives.

Much remains to be sorted out. Many establishment Republicans feel drawn to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. So do many hard-core conservatives, who admire his record of busting public employees unions’ grip on government budgets.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been giving consistently hard-core conservative speeches since arriving in Washington, yet his positions on several issues including immigration and his cooperation with the party’s leaders prompt many Republican voters to put him in the establishment column.

Mr. Rubio sought to change the focus Thursday night from Republican inadequacies to the strengths they have to beat the expected Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton. “This election can’t be a resume competition,” Mr. Rubio said, turning to his personal resume of growing up working-class. “How is Hillary going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck?” he asked.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, beloved by evangelical Christians, draws skepticism from fiscal conservatives.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has flashed his appeal to young voters in ways that still intrigue many conservatives. Others feel antsy about his efforts to hit back at claims that he is an “isolationist” by saying that the threat of war is a component of diplomacy in dealing with Iran.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has died-in-the-wool conservative Tom Pauken, a former Texas Republican Party chairman, swearing, “The Kasich I worked with for years is a true conservative in every way.”

Other Republicans see the sometimes cantankerous, unpredictable Mr. Kasich as a hide-in-the-wool moderate.

Carly Fiorina, the lone woman in the Republican field, didn’t make the main stage for the first debate because of her low polling and fundraising numbers. But she enjoys a growing fan club among the party base and party officials.

“I’ve never met any Republican who heard her speak who didn’t come away advancing her several notches up the ladder or make her first choice for the nomination,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said of Ms. Fiorina. “I’m not endorsing her or anyone, but she’s polling low because she’s just not that well-known in the country yet.”

Former pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a political neophyte and not exactly a household name before he decided to run, is tied for fourth place with Mr. Huckabee at 6.6 percent in the average of the five most recent national polls that Fox News used to pick the 10 prime-time debaters.

He has shown to some degree that name recognition may be less important this time around than being an outsider to the failed political ruling class despised by middle America.

Then there’s Mr. Trump, the center-stage billionaire who has been a Democrat, an independent and a Republican and still has managed to top the Republican field even though he is friendly with former President Bill Clinton and donated to the Senate campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

During the earlier debate Thursday for the seven candidates who didn’t make the prime-time stage, Ms. Fiorina explained in common-sense terms why Mr. Trump has risen so quickly despite some of his uneven fit with conservatives.

“He’s tapped into an anger people feel,” she said. “They’re sick of politics as usual. Whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hoped would be solved, the political class has failed you.” Mr. Kasich echoed those comments a few hours later on the main stage.

She also zinged him for palling around with former President Bill Clinton and for contributing to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s earlier Senate campaign.

After her debate Thursday, social media judged that she had hit it out of the park.

There are some lessons from Mr. Trump’s rise. Republicans yearn for authenticity over political polish. They want righteous indignation more than poll-driven explanations of why government doesn’t work. And they hanker for an outsider who is both competent and unwilling to join the ruling class of elites.

Some Republicans think Mr. Trump did more to focus voters and the press on the sometimes vacuous inadequacies of traditional candidatespeak than any other candidate in memory. “Frankly, I don’t have time for total political correctness,” Mr. Trump said Thursday night, defending his style.

Although most Republicans want him to stay in the race, few think he can or should be the nominee. He is in that sense one of the many impossibilities GOP voters set for themselves.

They want, for example, a nominee who, if elected president, will resist importunities from fellow Republicans to compromise fiscal principles in order to avoid shutting down the government. They want a leader unyieldingly dedicated to ensuring the United States doesn’t go the way of Greece or Puerto Rico — even if means directing fewer dollars to a popular program for children or the elderly.

It’s a tough script to deliver. Just ask Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who stood out as the Republican lawmaker who relentlessly put principle over politics. He has been attacked by fellow Republicans for doing so and now finds himself in the single digits of polls.

Therein lies one of the great conflicts of this race. Republican voters and major donors want someone who is a ramrod on principles but also flexible enough win the confidence of campaign donors, secure the nomination, win the election and then get along enough with Congress to “get things done.”

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