Handicapping the Candidates

Linda Chavez
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Posted: Sep 18, 2015 12:01 AM
Handicapping the Candidates
If anyone was in doubt that presidential politics is an endurance test, Wednesday's GOP debate surely proved it. For three excruciatingly long hours, the top 11 Republicans fielded questions, some of them inane, from CNN's Jake Tapper and two other questioners who might has well not have been there. If this were a contest on the merits, several of the candidates would drop out based on their performance. But, alas, politics is not a meritocracy -- which won't stop many of us from rating the field anyway.

The two men leading in the polls, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, demonstrated that neither is ready to be commander in chief. Trump doesn't know much about anything except making money -- with help from tax breaks, bankruptcy laws when things don't work out, and selling himself. Carson is a thoroughly decent man with a wonderful personal story and a brilliant medical career, but his answers, especially on the war in Afghanistan, suggest he's not ready to assume command.

Of the nine others, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee should clearly step aside. Paul's isolationism makes him a dangerous choice at this point in history, but his performance in both debates also exposed his slightly weird persona, a combination of testy and wonkish that has little appeal. Huckabee is a polished TV talker, but he doesn't have a whole lot to say.

Jeb Bush was disappointing for the first two hours of the debate. He was a terrific governor, and a very conservative one, but he doesn't inspire. He'd make a good president, but he's a mediocre candidate. Nonetheless, the money he's raised will keep him in the race for a long time.

In a normal presidential year, the three sitting governors on stage -- Chris Christie, John Kasich and Scott Walker -- would be getting more traction. Kasich did well in the first debate but faltered in the second. Walker improved his performance but still couldn't break through. Christie had a good night and showed some of the appeal that drew New Jersey's voters to him. All three should stay in the race for now, and, who knows, one of them might make it onto the ticket, though not necessarily in the top spot.

Ted Cruz was, frankly, a little creepy. He kept looking into the camera when he talked, which made him seem like a robot, and his voice dripped with a studied sincerity. But, like Bush's, his campaign has a lot of cash, and he has a small but loyal constituency. He's likely to stick around, but, unlike a few of the other second-tier candidates, I don't see him with a spot on the ballot in November 2016.

The two clear debate winners were Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina. Both were in command of the issues and able to field questions in ways both substantive and personal. Judging by the applause in the room, both have personalities that excite people.

Rubio's biggest handicap is also his strength: He's young and looks even younger. But if this election is about the future, Rubio is the candidate who will draw in voters who might not have voted Republican in the past two. He handled the tough issue of immigration well, speaking about the need to reform legal immigration, which is the key to dealing with illegal immigration. If the questioners had been better informed, they would have challenged some of the ridiculous things Trump and others had to say on the issue, starting with the reality that illegal immigration is down to a 40-year low.

Fiorina was clearly the biggest winner, however. She was an impressive and commanding presence on stage. Fiorina's biggest drawback is that she has never won an election. In a year when being an outsider may be a plus, this may not hurt her in the GOP primaries, but it could prove a big problem come the general election.

Many Americans regret their choice to elect a virtual unknown and inexperienced candidate in 2008 (which doesn't quite explain why they voted for him again in 2012), although Fiorina has a far more impressive resume than Barack Obama's before becoming president. She's actually run things and made tough choices in her career, and Obama hadn't when he was elected. But the last time Americans elected a president who'd never held office was 1952 -- and Dwight D. Eisenhower had just led the Allied forces to victory against the Nazis.

It's still early, but if this were a horserace, I'd put my money on Rubio or Fiorina to place come November 2016.