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Jeb Bush Republican Debate

Colorado Republican debate: The campaign tactics and media subplots you can expect to see tonight

By Matt Spector, Advisor

October 28, 2015 | 6 min read

As the Democratic field metastasizes around Hillary’s candidacy, and the populist ideals Bernie Sanders has espoused, the Republicans are still loudly jostling for pole position, with eyes on the Iowa primary less than 100 days away.

The instructive and utterly watchable on and off-stage friction will continue tonight as the Republican candidates take the stage in the ironically-titled “Your Money, Your Vote” debate in Boulder, Colo.

After successfully lobbying CNBC for a shorter debate with time set for opening and closing statements – a move that will severely limit the true “debate” portion of the debate (surprise!) – here’s what to watch for across candidates and storylines:

Jeb! struggles

Jeb’s challenges have been evident since Trump and Carson announced their insurgent candidacies, but the past week has allowed a clearer picture of his campaign’s dire straits. He’s reducing his campaign’s Miami headquarters and dismissing staffers, cutting payrolls by more than 40 per cent, shifting paid consultants to volunteer roles and refocusing efforts on New Hampshire, where advisors believe he can make greatest headway.

The Times claimed Jeb’s lackluster prospects have raised Bush 41’s concerns about his son’s prospects in the general election — and Trump’s greatest success this month might have been drawing Jeb into a drawn-out debate on Twitter over Bush 43’s role in the September 11 attacks.

Among new strategies, the campaign might call upon George W. to step forward to support his brother. Jeb’s public statements have demonstrated a shift in tone; he has embraced a Trump-like rightward, more salacious and unencumbered tone, and taking an interview opportunity to call a CBS primetime star “hot” like someone’s distressingly awkward uncle.

In a normal primary season, Jeb would use this evening’s debate to right the ship, continuing the cooly-delivered cerebral arguments and logical conclusions of his fitness to take on Hillary in the general election. Yet, entranced by a riled electorate and unpredictable cycle, it is likely he will instead aim for the meme-worthy moment again with Trump or Carson. Expect to see this Jeb! 3.0 take the stage, with the stakes higher than ever.

Rubio rising and Trump woes

Of the rest of the field, Rubio has the most to gain tonight. After a solid month with growing support from SuperPAC funders like Sheldon Adelson, Rubio must continue to prove the viability of his platform, offering a third way that sidesteps the Bush and Carson-Trump tumult.

The commentariat remains bullish around the “GOP Obama” chances against Hillary. He has the youth and record to speak authoritatively about issues and articulate a path forward for a united Republican party, but as was made clear with Carly Fiorina’s performance in the last debate, noise in a crowded field does not necessarily translate to sustained gains in the polls. Expect Rubio to try and address Hillary’s shortcomings in his opening and closing statements – and avoid directly engaging the other candidates during the rest of the debate.

Although his poll results still do not disappoint, the massive story of the Republican field is Trump’s precipitous drop from the lead: he trails Carson by more than 18 percent in some early polls.

In a campaign where Trump’s continuing carnival barker-appeal has confounded pundits, this month has been notable due to an unusual series of missteps, including insulting the intelligence of Iowa voters earlier this month in response to a Carson bump.

As party leaders can now see a path to the nomination – whether Trump decides to follow that path or bow out as gracefully as he is capable  –  he needs verbal fireworks during the debate to stem Carson’s rise, reaffirm his Christian credentials, and continue to build the appeal of his outsider persona.

Trump even looks to be overshadowed by a resurgent Christie, whose smoothie-on-the-Acela episode this week notwithstanding has been biding his time in the field and amassing support.

CNBC and...

Debate moderators Becky Quick, John Harwood and Carl Quintanilla are seasoned reporters and anchors – their fluency in economic and fiscal principles means they’ll press candidates who have been soft thus far on specifics, or in the case of Trump have delivered tax policy plans that diverge from party platforms. Audiences should expect to see some painful question avoidance tactics from the Republican candidates, but the moderators’ seriousness will make it ever more challenging to truly shy away from the questioners’ spotlight.

Piling on Boehner’s unexpected resignation last month, the GOP drama around Paul Ryan’s speaker candidacy has made an even more public showing the deep divisions of the Republican party and the role the Freedom Caucus has played in shaping the outcome. The candidates might avoid wading into these waters – but expect Quick, Harwood or Quintanilla to at least raise the House commotion as a sign of party and policy weakness.

The Democrats’ gain

Hillary had a very, very good week last week – even conservative commentators admitted a win (see: Fox News allowing the Clinton campaign’s clear victory) following her 11-hour marathon testimony in front of the House Benghazi committee. Following Katy Perry and John Legend concerts in Iowa and New York, respectively, this weekend, and a good showing at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner this weekend, Clinton’s campaign is riding high.

Worthwhile to note – despite Clinton’s strong showing, the Benghazi committee intends to maintain its activities until at least the end of the year, meaning the non-controversy might continue to rear its head.

The biggest shift from the last debate will show the strongest Republican candidates strategically avoiding directly addressing the field and instead will focusing their rhetoric on the presumptive Democratic nominee. Watch the parity Hillary’s strongest competitors will attempt to create amid the conservative commotion: the Sanders campaign will continue to sharpen its rhetoric as the Democratic primary becomes increasingly set in stone – barring the late entry of a Gore or Warren-like object in the race.

Matt Spector is formerly of Havas and the change agency SS+K, and now advises the US for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He tweets @mspec.

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