If you’re an advisor to one of the candidates tonight, how do you advise him or her to have a moment, and make it entirely authentic and preferably completely spontaneous?
Ben Carson benefited the most from the Fox debate, not because he dominated it. In fact, he disappeared for most if it. He has risen pretty much on the basis of his closing statement that his campaign says he ad-libbed and that was amusing, different, and very true to Carson.
Carson’s surge speaks to how volatile the race is, and how sensitive it is to a big moment on the big stage.
A few other thoughts:
Donald Trump had an objectively bad debate last time, but effectively changed the subject with the hail of fists he began throwing as soon as he left the stage. I still think he will be hurt over time if he is manifestly unprepared for these events. A lot of other candidates will be spoiling for a fight with him tonight. It’s hard to see conventional attacks fazing him; his vulnerability is probably to deft mockery, of the sort you can see Carly potentially wielding.
Speaking of Carly. There has been a lot of positive buzz about her for months now, and it reached another level after the last debate. But she still hasn’t had a big jump in the polls, perhaps because she hasn’t had the aforementioned big moment on the big stage. Tonight is her opportunity.
Before the last debate I wrote that Scott Walker just had to survive it, which wasn’t just wrong, but catastrophically wrong. He ducked and covered, and although he made no gaffes, he faded to the background. He has to be much better tonight. The same goes for Jeb. If he doesn’t make a strong impression and if the new TV ads haven’t moved the needle several weeks from now, he may begin to be at risk of losing his grip on the Republican establishment.
I would think Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are feeling less pressure than the others — each has been more or less sticking to their plan for the long run and can have some confidence that their merits as performers will tell over time (barring, of course, some memorable mis-step, which is possible for everyone).
Finally, it will be interesting to see how the dynamic of the much-smaller early debate plays out. Usually, there has to be someone who is declared a winner, and that holds the potential for a bounce in attention for someone. Bobby Jindal has the most upside of that group.