This will be the first debate without Donald Trump as “The Inevitable.” What the past few weeks have shown us is that Ted Cruz has built an impressively solid ground game in Iowa (and elsewhere), that Marco Rubio hasn’t, and that Ben Carson — still a nice guy — is largely out of his depth. It has also shown us that Donald Trump cannot continue as “The Donald” without consequence. He has to choose between his personality and being Presidential, or the voters will do it for him.
Tuesday night for Trump will be about adapting. It will show us a lot about Trump the candidate: can he adapt to the new circumstances in Iowa and present his candidacy in a way that staunches the bleeding and shows potential to draw new converts to help him rise above his plateaued campaign? It will also show us much about Trump the man and whether his pride will survive a sudden second-tier status without the threat to take his ball and go home. For the record, I predict we will see a subdued and careful Trump, whose place at the podium will be as a seat at the bargaining table looking for a competitive advantage and living to fight another day.
For Cruz, Tuesday will be a test of his demeanor. Can he rise above the expected slings and arrows from all sides? If Trump goes ‘nuclear,’ can he turn it to his advantage and both deflect the blast while demonstrating classic statesmanship and Presidential demeanor? And will he exhibit a Nehemiah instinct to carry a trowel in one hand to build his candidacy on solid policy ground, while wielding a sword in the other to defend against the attacks.
For Rubio, the debate will be about his credibility. Marco has been staggered by the practical effects of his Iowa ground game (or lack thereof), the defection of more Carson supporters to Cruz than to his campaign, the consolidation of the Christian and conservative base around Cruz and not Rubio, and rumblings of an inability to consolidate Establishment support. For Rubio, he must reinvigorate the promise of his hopeful message of a “New American Century,” something that’s been missing in the nasty intramural scrum he picked with Ted Cruz. Can he achieve credibility as a possible top-two candidate in Iowa who could leapfrog a fading Trump and survive an Iowa loss by a strong second-place showing? Can he effectively position Ted Cruz as an ideological purist who will fail against Hillary Clinton and bolster the desire by his own camp to make this election about old versus new ideas, generations, and demographics? And can he project himself with the temperament and judgement to be a viable commander-in-chief?
For Ben Carson, Tuesday night will be about survivability. With his precipitous fall among a constituency that looked initially like a hand-in-glove fit, will he be able to survive the current Trump/Cruz/Rubio fray? Will he capably project his campaign’s relevance by finding a voice that breeds confidence in his ability to confront the growing and visceral concern that we are at war.
For all the others, Iowa is over, and the debate will be about positioning for New Hampshire.
Of course, everything is premised on a supposition that CNN has learned from the CNBC fallout and will actually attempt an impartial debate on issues. One can always hope…
Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.