Did the Real Republican Nominee Just Stand Up?

Last week, I highlighted a number of things to look for in the second Republican debate. The only really important one was: will the real nominee please stand up?

My premise is that the three people at the top of the polls right now have never been elected to or served in public office, and that makes them highly unlikely to be the eventual nominee. Outsiders are appealing, but they never get the nomination, and probably for good reason. Not only do they have no experience running campaigns and winning elections, they also have no direct track record we can look to if we want to guess how they will really vote and make decisions under the pressures of public office. This early, a few months into the primary race, we don’t even know whether they have the discipline and commitment to see a campaign out to the end, or whether they will decide the actual lifestyle of a politician isn’t worth living.

(Donald Trump may already have given his answer to that last question by dropping out of a major South Carolina campaign event in order to close a “significant business transaction.” Because the killer negotiator who’s going to get Mexico to pay for the wall has so little clout that he can’t reschedule the date of a business deal.)

So I’ve been wondering which of the remaining experienced politicians would come out of last week looking like a new front-runner. Well, we’ve had a couple of days and a few poll results, and we’re beginning to see the answer.

There are two candidates who came out of last week with a definite gain in the polls. Not by coincidence, they are the ones who made the biggest impression in last week’s debate. But here’s the twist. One of the “real” candidates who is emerging is one of political outsiders I had dismissed. And it’s getting a little harder to do that.

The two people who broke out in a new CNN poll are Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio.

Fiorina rocketed to second place in the polls at 15%, with her support mostly coming from the other political outsiders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Trump is still leading at 24%, but that’s down from 32% in CNN’s last poll from a few weeks ago, raising the hope that we may already have seen Peak Donald.

It’s easy to see why Fiorina has done so well. She may have never held office, but I’m now convinced we can’t dismiss her as a personality-driven protest vote. (I’ll let you decide for yourself who that description applies to.) What struck people about her most in the debate was not just her poise and spunkiness, but the depth of her knowledge and thinking about the big issues. There were only two candidates on stage, for example, who could really tell you exactly what was going wrong in the Middle East and exactly what they would do about. And believe it or not, there are a lot of us who think that’s kind of important for someone who wants to be commander-in-chief.

The other person who gave those sorts of answers was Marco Rubio. In retrospect, the whole three hours of the debate—five if you include the undercard that almost nobody watched—can be summed up in about three minutes, in a three-way exchange involving Trump, Rubio, and Fiorina. CNN doesn’t seem to have posted video of this specific moment in the debate, and besides, you can appreciate it better by reading it.

It begins with a question from the moderator about Russia.

TAPPER: Let’s move to Russia if we could. Russia is sending troops and tanks into Syria right now to prop up a US enemy, Bashar al-Assad. President Obama’s incoming top general says, quote, “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.”

Mr. Trump, you say you can do business with President Vladimir Putin, you say you will get along, quote, “very well.” What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?

TRUMP: So, number one, they have to respect you. He has absolutely no respect for President Obama. Zero.

Syria’s a mess. You look at what’s going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants.

I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe—and I may be wrong, in which case I’d probably have to take a different path, but I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with. We don’t get along with China. We don’t get along with the heads of Mexico. We don’t get along with anybody, and yet, at the same time, they rip us left and right. They take advantage of us economically and every other way. We get along with nobody.

I will get along—I think—with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable—stable world.

TAPPER: So, you—just to clarify, the only answer I heard to the question I asked is that you would—you would reach out to Vladimir Putin, and you would do what? You would…

TRUMP: I believe that I will get along—we will do—between that, Ukraine, all of the other problems, we won’t have the kind of problems that our country has right now with Russia and many other nations.

TAPPER: Senator Rubio, you’ve taken a very different approach to the question of Russia. You’ve called Vladimir Putin a, quote, “gangster.” Why would President Rubio’s approach be more effective than President Trump’s?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, I have an understanding of exactly what it is Russia and Putin are doing, and it’s pretty straightforward. He wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force. He himself said that the destruction of the Soviet Union—the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and now he’s trying to reverse that.

He’s trying to destroy NATO. And this is what this is a part of. He is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East. Here’s what you’re gonna see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly—fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS, but in order to prop up Assad. He will also, then, turn to other countries in the region and say, “America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia. Begin to rely on us.”

What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it. That is what is happening in the Middle East. That’s what’s happening with Russia, and…

TAPPER: Thank you, Senator Rubio. I want to bring in Carly Fiorina.

FIORINA: Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him.

What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.

By the way, the reason it is so critically important that every one of us know General Suleimani’s name is because Russia is in Syria right now, because the head of the Quds force traveled to Russia and talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad.

Russia is a bad actor, but Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control. We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven’t. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven’t. I will. We could also, to Senator Rubio’s point, give the Egyptians what they’ve asked for, which is intelligence. We could give the Jordanians what they’ve asked for, bombs and materiel. We have not supplied it. I will. We could arm the Kurds. They’ve been asking us for three years. All of this is within our control.

Note to Trump supporters. When we’ve been saying all along that we wanted a more serious candidate, this is what we meant. You insisted that by “serious” we meant: in line with the Beltway conventional wisdom. What we actually meant was: based on detailed knowledge and thinking. What we meant was: not just declaring that the US will be strong, but also being able to name the enemy’s strategy and priorities, and to name specific measures that the US can take to thwart that strategy.

When it comes to countering Putin, Trump is sure that Putin will be impressed with him and that they’ll get along. After all, he’s Donald Trump! And that’s it, that’s the whole of his strategy. Rubio and Fiorina could name the specific reasons why Putin would take them, and the United States, seriously.

In this context, Rubio and Fiorina did not need to send out zingers about how we don’t need an “apprentice” in the White House. They were showing us who is really prepared to take the reins of American foreign policy. The same pattern applied on other issues, not just foreign policy, and it explains why Fiorina and Rubio are the candidates who broke out in the polls afterward. They were the ones who earned it.

There’s not much point analyzing why other, lower-ranking candidates didn’t break out. I can give some general impressions. Rand Paul is too unfocused; he’s shooting from the hip and doesn’t really know what his central sales pitch is. Scott Walker is running a great campaign—for Secretary of Labor. Ted Cruz is eloquent, but while Fiorina and Rubio give extemporaneous answers based on extensive knowledge, Cruz tends to give set-piece speeches; there is a difference between sounding prepared and sounding rehearsed. But in a field that is still so crowded, with candidates given only a few opportunities to answer questions, there are a lot of reasons why a candidate might not break out, and better luck to them next time, if they’re able to stick around that long.

Yet if last week’s performances continue—and given the people involved, it’s likely that they will—the primaries are starting to look a little more like a Fiorina-Rubio contest. The real contenders for the nomination just stood up.

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