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Tomorrow is fight night and it could be the first inflection point we've seen in the race since June, when Donald Trump began his rise. In 2012 not every debate mattered, but the ones that did mattered a lot: Gingrich's rise came through the debates and Perry's collapse began not with his memory flub, but with his "you don't have a heart" immigration line.
No one has any idea how tomorrow will play out, but we can make some intelligent guesses about who has the biggest upside-and downside-potential. So let's tick down the list, starting at the top of the polls:
Donald Trump: I suspect that there's very little Trump can do to help himself at this debate. Each candidate will get, at best, something like seven minutes of total time to talk. And as the front-runner, Trump has the biggest target on him. At best, he can come across as more knowledgeable and serious than some GOP voters might assume. But it's hard to see how he could persuade that many more people who aren't onboard the Trump Train already.
His downside, on the other hand, seems pretty significant. At some point, Republican voters will be confronted with Trump's long history of liberal positions and Democratic friends. If someone makes that stick, it will hurt him.
Scott Walker: Probably has the largest beta of the night-that is, the biggest differential between his potential risk and potential reward. Walker is already well-positioned in the race with respect to both the insurgent and establishment wings of the party. His political instincts are very good. And he's unique in his every-guy persona. Just think about how well his Kohl's chic style contrasts with Trump's "look how expensive and classy these pants are" shtick.
The lone point of uncertainty about him as a candidate, thus far, is a concern about his grasp of policy. If he has a bad moment on substance, it could feed into concerns that he's not really a heavyweight. But if he comes across as a guy with a good understanding of the world, then he probably helps himself a great deal. More than anyone else on stage, Walker will be in a position to help (or hurt) himself regardless of what the others do.
Jeb Bush: He has a bit more upside than Trump, but just as much downside. How could this smart, methodical technocrat have any downside, you ask? Because Jeb! 2016 often feels uncomfortably like Huntsman! 2012. No one expects Bush to be very good-he's got that going for him-but if a mass Republican audience gets to see how much he dislikes average Republicans, that probably won't help.
His upside isn't huge, but it also isn't dependent on his own performance. If Trump has a good night and/or the other candidates spend their time focused on Trump, it can only help Bush. (Also, he has Kasich onstage to draw some of the Huntsman heat.)
Ben Carson: Like Rubio, Huckabee, and Rand Paul, Carson has been on downward trajectory since early July, when Trump began his rise. It's not clear that he has very much at stake in Thursday's debate, other than to remind Republicans that if they want an anti-Washington, anti-establishment conservative who's beholden to no one, then they have an alternative to Trump.
Marco Rubio: Rubio has the second-biggest beta of the night. On one hand, he has a chance to show a massive audience why everyone thinks he's the great political talent of his generation. And he's not yet saddled with high expectations, because most voters don't understand how good he is at debates. So Rubio could really catapult himself by picking off both moderate Bush supporters and conservatives who were holding out for somebody else in the field.
And his downside is massive, too. For Rubio, the big problem has always been reconciling his Gang of 8 support with where the party is on immigration. Obama's executive amnesty gifted him a way out of that trap. If he's figured out how to square the circle, then he'll be in a very strong position. If he hasn't, then it'll be trouble all the way to the horizon.
Ted Cruz: Alone among the candidates onstage, Cruz is all upside. He effectively boxed out Rand Paul in the early part of the campaign and is now positioned to be the most serious anti-establishment candidate when (if?) Trump fades. He can press that case tomorrow night without having to take Trump on directly. And because of Trump's presence, no one will be head-hunting Cruz. He can tend his own garden and make the case that there's no one onstage hated more by both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
We'll get to the rest of the field-and the kids' table debate-down below.
"In discussions of America's high health care costs, surprisingly little attention is paid to salaries and wages. Yet the fact that medical jobs simply pay more than those in other sectors is beyond dispute. A physician practicing in a primary care setting, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earned an average of just over $200,000 in 2010, while specialists averaged over $355,000 (the highest of any professional category tracked). By comparison, lawyers average just over $110,000, airline pilots about $92,000, and chartered actuaries (who calculate risk for insurance companies and must pass complex exams longer and arguably more difficult than the medical boards) about $150,000."
_Eli Lehrer, "The Great Unmentionable," from our April 16, 2001, issue.
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I want to believe: What it looks like to be suckered by Mars One.
"I'm speaking here as an atheist. I don't believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death."
Rand Paul: A couple months back I wrote that the smart money would bet that Rand will underperform his father's 2012 numbers. That's looking pretty good right now. Rand never took off after announcing and his support is about half of what it was at its high point. He's still got 6 percent in the RealClear average, but it looks like he's having a hard time crossing over with conservative voters. Partly, this is because Ted Cruz has been strategically smart. Then there's Trump, who has made a much more effective play for conservative voters already distrustful of the GOP. And then there's ISIS and Russia and the rest of the world burning.
At the debate, it's not clear that he'll be very much in play. He has little upside or downside, to my eyes, and is likely to be relevant only as a foil to Rubio on foreign affairs.
Mike Huckabee: Wait-the Huck is sitting at 6% in the RealClear poll average, tied with Cruz, Paul, and Rubio? You bet he is. In fact, the most underappreciated story of the campaign so far is how Huckabee has held up despite having very little money and just about no media presence. People simply like the guy. Which is why Huckabee has a pretty good upside at the debate: It's the best chance so far for voters to be reminded of why they liked him the first time around. The only downside is that he probably missed his chance to be the nominee in 2012.
John Kasich: It's hard to get excited about 3.5 percent in the polls. But on the other hand, Kasich has improbably pushed himself into the top-ten, where he'll have a great stage to begin his quest to be Jeb's running mate. (Search your feelings; you know it to be true!)
As such, Kasich doesn't have a ton of upside. But his downside is real-he needs to be attractive enough to Republican voters that they'll accept him down the line when Bush World argues that if they have Florida and Ohio on the ticket, the election is in the bag.
Chris Christie: Obviously, I have a huge, home-town weakness for Christie. His political gifts are so enormous that I'd never count him out of any election, anywhere, for anything. Like Rubio and Huckabee, he has real upside potential just by dint of his personality. And like Rubio (but unlike Huckabee), he has real downside, too. If he gets trapped in a bad spot and lets his Jersey out, I'm not sure how it will play. The good news is that next to Trump's New York-ishness, Christie's Jersey attitude looks almost demure.
The Kids Table: The group sitting at the early-debate kids table has everything to gain and nothing to lose. Because no matter what happens in the main event, there are going to be stories written about the undercard which say, "So-and-so, wasn't on the big stage, but s/he gave an unexpectedly strong performance ..."
They can wail away on the front-runners in absentia. They can crush the media for (foolishly) consigning them to a second-tier debate. There's plenty of opportunity.
As with the big show, it's impossible to guess who might win the debate in such a grouping. But watch Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry, who have, in general, the biggest upsides in the group.
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