Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have something going for them every time they’re on stage or on TV.
The more Republicans hear about the three presidential contenders, the more they like them, a new McClatchy-Marist Poll finds.
That’s crucial at this stage of the nominating process since Carson, a retired neurosurgeon; Rubio, a freshman senator from Florida; and Cruz, a freshman senator from Texas, are still largely unknown to most voters.
They’ll all be in the spotlight Tuesday as Republicans debate for the fourth time, and they’re all well-positioned to bolster their status as top-tier candidates. Or let curious Republicans down.
“It’s huge,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the survey, said of the early impressions. “This is an electorate unusually attentive that’s watching these debates.”
On the opposite end: Jeb Bush. As he struggles to regain support for his once high-flying campaign, Republicans say the more they see him, the less they like him.
Republicans voters by 67-20 percent say the more they hear about Carson, the more they like him rather than dislike him. The same voters by 58-27 percent say the same of Rubio, and by 51-31 percent of Cruz.
“Ben Carson is very well-educated and well-spoken and he’s not part of the Republican establishment,” said Jason Cook, 41, a mechanical engineer from Crowley, Texas.
Carson 24, Trump 23, Rubio 12, Cruz 8, Bush 8, Paul 5, Kasich 4, Fiorina 3, lead the latest McClatchy-Marist Poll.
Rubio is part of that establishment.
But that does appeal to some Republicans. Loretta Moretz, 65, a central Florida retiree and registered Republican who identifies herself as an independent, saw Rubio as best equipped to run against Democrats. “I like everything I’ve heard from him,” Moretz said.
Ronald Christie, 69, an Orlando retiree, is trying to decide between Rubio and Cruz. “I’m a conservative Republican so I’m definitely looking for a Republican. . . . I’m a little concerned about Trump, and I could see Carson about vice president,” he said.
Cruz is a favorite among the more conservative voters, who like his relentless railing against big government and who tend to turn out in big numbers in Republican primaries and caucuses.
By 64-22 percent, very conservative GOP voters, and by 66-20 percent supporters of the tea party movement, said they like Cruz more each time they see him.
Carson is also a favorite of that constituency, but he’s doing well among all Republican groups and shows promise as a strong candidate by every metric.
31% of Republicans say Trump has the best chance of beating a Democrat next year, but 37% said they definitely don’t want him to get the nomination.
The limelight Carson, Rubio and Cruz are now finding can have its downside.
Carson’s finding controversy over statements about his upbringing and about some unorthodox views. And Rubio’s facing criticisms over his personal finances and Senate attendance record as he’s risen in the polls.
Less well-positioned are two of the race’s best known figures, real estate mogul Donald Trump and Bush, the former governor of Florida.
Trump is second among Republicans with 23 percent, but his upside is limited. Nearly half found that as they learn more about Trump, they’re less inclined to like him.
He did get decent support from followers of the tea party, which revels in its disdain for all things Washington. Other Republican constituencies were adamantly against him.
Thirty-seven percent said they definitely didn’t want Trump to win the nomination, the worst showing of any candidate. But that number was pushed up by several blocs that may not vote as heavily in GOP primaries, including self-identified “soft” Republicans, moderates and people who do not support the tea party.
Among those supporting Trump is Carlos Perez, 45, an Orlando environmental analyst. “I think he’s a good businessman and the one to set the country straight,” Perez said. “The economy really concerns me. I feel we could do a lot more in this country.”
Bush faces new warning signs he’ll have a very hard time clawing his way back up even with more debates and more campaigning.
Republicans by 58-32 percent say the more they learn about Bush, the less they like him. Voters in every demographic group felt similarly.
Also, 32 percent of GOP voters pick Bush as the one they do not want to win the nomination. That was second only to Trump. And it’s driven by people more likely to vote, including very conservative and conservative Republicans.
Bush is hamstrung by sub-par debate showings, Miringoff said. “He came with the expectation he was the smart Bush,” the pollster said. “That’s not what he’s showing.”
Republicans are most eagerly seeking someone who will stand on conservative principles, not just someone who can win.
In a test of the ability to win, the poll found Carson the strongest general election candidate among top GOP candidates against either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, followed by Rubio.
Clinton would defeat Carson by 2 percentage points, Rubio by 5; Bush by 8; Cruz or Fiorina by 10; and Trump by 15.
Sanders would lose to Carson by 2 percentage points and defeat Rubio by 3, Bush by 10, Cruz or Trump by 12, and Fiorina by 14.
58-38% Clinton’s lead over Fiorina among women.
In an interesting note, Fiorina, who boasts she’s best equipped among Republicans to challenge Clinton, fares poorly with women voters in a hypothetical match-up against Clinton.
She would lose women voters today to Clinton by 20 percentage points, performing worse than Rubio or Carson (each down by 12) and Bush or Cruz (each down by 15).
Only Trump, who would lose women voters today by 26 percentage points, did worse.
Vera Bergengruen, Lesley Clark, William Douglas, Iana Kozelsky, Alexandria Montag, Grace Toohey and Victoria Whitley contributed.