MILWAUKEE — More than 10 months of campaign activity have left the Republican Party in a quandary. The contest for the GOP’s presidential nomination has no obvious front-runner.
This has been a confusing race almost from the beginning, and it seems only to grow more muddled. That became apparent again on Tuesday night in the fourth round of debate among the candidates. No one was treated as though he or she was the person to beat. The night belonged to many and therefore to no one in particular.
The polls show a somewhat stratified field. Businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson still stand above the others. Each, however, has limitations and questions that must be dealt with. Behind them are Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.). Both continue to impress with their debate performances, but neither has been through the fires that are surely to come.
After that, it’s anybody’s guess which of the other candidates is truly viable, but some could be. Even after months on the campaign trail, the winnowing has been minimal. More rather than fewer candidates still harbor dreams of accepting the nomination next summer in Cleveland. That means the incentives argue in favor of staying in to see how things shake out, rather than quitting in the face of tepid poll numbers or weak fundraising.
Whatever the surveys show, they don’t fully measure the dynamics of the race or the conversation among primary and caucus voters and among party insiders and strategists. Rather than a contest with a frontrunner and others seeking to become the alternative, the race remains a series of smaller battles, with jockeying to emerge in one lane or another, in one early state or another.
The summer was a time of scrambled expectations as Trump and then Carson rose in the polls. Trump maneuvered his way up the ladder with strong rhetoric about immigration and serial insults that unsettled his rivals. Carson caught everyone by surprise, including perhaps himself. If there is an organic candidacy, fueled by social media and word of mouth, it could be his.
The rise of Trump and Carson coincided with the diminishment of the biggest name in the field. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush strutted as a fundraising behemoth through the spring and early summer, salting away more than $100 million in a super PAC. But as a candidate, he faltered. He could not generate sparks among Republicans, many of whom are obviously wary about handing their nomination once again to someone named Bush.
Two weeks ago, his standing had sunk so low that his advisers were asked whether he might soon quit the race. Today, revived by his performance in Tuesday’s debate, those questions have faded to the background. That’s a small consolation for a candidate who was expected to be the most formidable in the field, but it is something to cling to.
Bush is now reduced to pinning his hopes on his ability to connect with the often-fickle voters of New Hampshire, who saved his father’s candidacy in 1988 but savaged that of his brother in 2000.
The other contenders aren’t quite sure what to do about Trump and Carson. As the outsiders in a year of voter anger and frustration with Washington, their campaign messages write themselves. Each has loyal followers, but how many and for how long?
Carson’s intelligence and mellow personality continue to attract support, but his policy prescriptions will draw more and more questions. Will the details matter to unhappy conservatives looking for something that breaks the mold of traditional politics?
Trump now speaks of himself as a politician, as he did during an appearance early Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He will never fully throttle his instincts to put down rivals, but he seems more subdued, less bombastic.
His opponents continue to recalibrate their sense of his candidacy — from dismissing his potential to fearing his attacks. His hard-line immigration policy — to deport 11 million who are in the United States without documentation — draws rebukes from the likes of Bush.
Much depends on the trajectory of Trump and Carson. If the campaign turns to policy, each will be challenged. But if this year is about things other than policy prescriptions, then the other candidates will have to decide when to engage them.
Many Republicans see a contest looming between Rubio and Cruz — and it’s apparent that their advisers are preparing for a collision. They are gifted politicians in distinctly different ways, both capable of making their points with flair and emotion on the debate stage. But wider popular support has escaped them, although there is plenty of time for more voters to discover them.
Farther back are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. They are also on a collision course, two alpha personalities whose hopes are kept alive by their conviction that those above them are no more capable than they are of leading the party.
Christie lost his place on the main debate stage because of flagging national poll numbers, but he used his slight to dominate the undercard debate Tuesday. His message was reduced to the claim that he is the best the party can offer to take on Hillary Rodham Clinton. He draws good reviews for his town-hall meetings in the Granite State, where his bluntness is appreciated. But he needs to convert that into broader and more solid support.
Kasich came to Milwaukee with a strategy of interruption, inserting himself over the objection of the moderators from Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal. It was a strong dose of Kasich as Kasich and drew mixed-to-negative reviews. But it could be the only way he knows.
Republicans have celebrated the breadth and depth of their field of candidates. At some point, they will have to pick the person to lead them. For now, the choices remain numerous, although hardly similar in what the candidates offer. The campaign has moved beyond the period of introduction. The next phase will bring more heated engagement and with it, perhaps, greater clarity. To date, the campaign has produced anything but.