by Ken Feltman
While the media were reporting the outbursts and arrogance of Donald Trump, other things were happening – things that will be more important in the long run.
Behind the headlines, the people who make Republican politics their profession are deciding on their next moves. They have already narrowed the field. Most see Trump as unmanageable and not electable. They understand why Fox News CEO Roger Ailes made peace with Trump: Trump has entertainment value. Look for him to strike a deal with Fox when his campaign is over – perhaps even sooner.
The Ailes factor
Ailes has a long history of advising so-called “establishment” Republicans, including four presidents (Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes). His media work with Rudy Guiliani’s first campaign for mayor of New York (1989) is still cited as one of the most creative applications of political media. He knows how to draw eyeballs to television screens.
Meantime, Trump shows signs that he is weakening as a candidate. He will continue for a while to rank highly in polls although he seems to have hit his ceiling. The GOP professionals know that Trump is not likely to get the Republican nomination. They want to keep him happy so he will not run as an independent. With Trump in a three-way race, the Democratic candidate would be heavily favored to win.
The payroll factor
The pros are looking for a winner, someone who can carry key states – Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia, for example. That means that they are looking closely at Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich. That is also why they are not looking at Rick Santorum. He failed to win his last Pennsylvania campaign and could not gain traction after Iowa in 2012. His support comes mostly from those who hold the same values he does.
Rubio was impressive during the debate. But he has not caught on with rank-and-file Republicans beyond Florida. The pros do not see evidence that he can put together a national campaign. To be an effective competitor nationally, Rubio will need a tough, seasoned campaign team. If that happens, other GOP pros will seek to join the team. Rubio could catch on. He is so close, yet still so far.
Mike Huckabee has not caught on this time. His campaign seems a little tired. The pros wonder: Does he have the “fire in the belly” this time?
Ted Cruz has a loyal following. He will continue as a national figure and a force within the Senate. But the pros think his message is too narrow and his knowledge of politics too parochial. In the end, voters almost always pick the candidate who can get things done. Cruz has a reputation for stopping things from getting done.
Ben Carson was impressive in the debate. He impresses the media following the candidates and voters are showing interest. But, to this point, his campaign can be summed up by Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland: “There’s no there there.” The pros have seen this many times before. Successful politics requires organizational skills. Carson shows too few signs of understanding that.
Bush has everything he needs to be the nominee – plus one more thing: A last name that may weigh him down. Still, Bush is the safe bet. He is better organized and financed than other candidates. His campaign staffing may be fleshed out.
If the Bush campaign is not hiring, that means that the unemployed pros need to find another candidate. Where do they go?
Kasich is ideally positioned as a successful governor of a swing state. He is an excellent “retail” or “one-on-one” candidate. As he works a crowd, he appeals to people with his relaxed, friendly style. That skill is important in New Hampshire and, as Kasich spends more time in New Hampshire, he is rising in polls there. His campaign will be hiring.
Retail political skills are less important in Iowa, where caucus delegates tend to support candidates based on political ideology and social issues more than on likeability and campaigning skills. That is how Santorum won Iowa in 2012 (remember Michele Bachmann winning the Iowa straw poll four years ago this month before fading in disorganized confusion?) and may account for Scott Walker’s early popularity in Iowa.
The pros do not trust Chris Christie. He has not treated people well. Bobby Jindal is viewed as having a brilliant future behind him. He has what it takes but no compelling reason to think he will get anywhere, based on his track record of being slow to seize opportunities.
Lindsey Graham comes from South Carolina, a key state, but is not polling well there, much less nationally. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is interested in the VP spot and with her on the ticket, who needs Graham to carry South Carolina?
George Pataki and Jim Gilmore entered the race recently and may stick it out through Iowa hoping that lightning will strike. Pataki, a popular former New York governor, must make the case that he can carry New York in the general election next year. That is a hard case to make.
Gilmore thought he had time to make the case that he can win Virginia, where he was governor. He has shown in the past that he is a fast finisher. But he is a slow starter and may have run out of time already. Beside, squabbling in the Virginia GOP has some national Republican groups talking about writing off Virginia in 2016.
Those looking for somebody new keep returning to Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. They are the flavors of the day with the media. But the pros know the media are fickle. The pros ask what states Fiorina or Carson might bring to the ticket in November 2016? The pros have been through this before.
They know that the American people are fed up with gridlock and the sense that Washington cannot get things done. Trump is playing into that frustration. Fiorina and Carson are, too, but with a more dignified, civil approach. Both are thoughtful, intelligent and reasonable people. But what can they bring to the party or to a ticket?
On the other hand, a Bush-Kasich ticket (or a Kasich-Rubio or Rubio-Kasich ticket) brings the hope of carrying two “must win” states next year. Then, of course, Nikki Haley is a plausible vice-presidential candidate on any ticket.
As the pros settle in with campaigns, we will know more about which candidates should move toward the front of the pack and which are being carried by media attention.
As a long-time GOP fundraiser used to say, “Don’t tell me about the candidate. Tell me who is on the team. Who is on the payroll?”
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