With presidential primaries weeks, not months, away, the time has come for GOP candidates to make their moves to gain momentum just before the first voters begin to cast ballots.
A GOP debate Thursday at the North Charleston Coliseum is expected to jump-start the final push.
The Iowa caucus takes place Feb. 1. In South Carolina, which holds the South’s first primary on Feb. 20, five candidates have separated themselves from the field of 12: New York billionaire Donald Trump; U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida; retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Here’s what the Top 5-polling Republicans in South Carolina, listed in order of their current ranking, need to do in Thursday’s debate:
Don’t get knocked off his pedestal. He will attack others on the stage a bit — when has he not? — but he should save it for his main foes: Cruz and Rubio. Look for an exchange with Cruz over his citizenship. Trump also should take up air time, minimizing his competitors’ chances to talk — or criticize him, and avoid getting — or looking — tired by the end of two-hour debate. Have any details for all those boasts about making America great again? Might be time to share some.
Go after Trump to make in-roads with voters outside Iowa. Show where Trump is weak and vague. Avoid prolonged side debates with Rubio that might give Trump a chance at the high road. Can he articulate positions that might attract voters worried that he’s too far to the right? That would help. But, with roughly a dozen Southern and Midwestern states holding their primaries and caucuses before March 15, he might not need to worry too much about moderation.
Solidify his position as the establishment’s choice. It also might be time to ratchet up attacks on the Top 2. The horse race is about to start, and Rubio needs to get closer to the leaders. Show a more realistic approach to foreign relations and the economy, which has started 2016 amid stock market turmoil, as opposed to his main rivals. Avoid fights with those polling behind him — that means Bush in particular. Play the smart, reasonable guy in the room.
Stop the free fall. Carson was the race’s No. 2 guy for much of the fall. Now, he’s in the single-digit club in polls. Bad news? Debates have not been his strong suit. (Not even close.) Carson will need to turn in a dynamic performance, something he thus far has not shown on a televised stage, to work his way back into the race’s Top 3. Carson’s best hope appears to rest with his grassroots supporters, who flock to his appearances, coming out for primaries and caucuses regardless.
Time is running out. Among the early primary states, the campaign’s big spender is most competitive in South Carolina — and he’s running in fifth. Bush went after Trump at the last debate. He’ll probably do so again — bolstered by S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s criticisms this week. Look for more attacks also of his one-time protegee Rubio, the punching bag of ads by the pro-Bush super PAC. Bush needs a stellar performance, showing voters they were right to make him the race’s early front-runner.