David Axelrod: It's just getting serious

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: As fall approaches, voters are likely to reconsider their summer flings with some of the unconventional candidates
  • CNN debate may have scrambled the race, helping some, hurting others, he says

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. He served as senior adviser to President Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)There is a predictable rhythm to presidential campaigns that we live, forget and relearn every four years.

David Axelrod
For voters, the spring before elections is for playing the field, a time when you date broadly, but not seriously. The summer lends itself to intense romances, impulses that seize you completely, even as you know, deep down, that your companion may be an incorrigible rascal and the romance will never last.
    But come the fall, you begin to judge your prospective suitors by a different standard, craving the solidity, character and dependability on which long-term relationships are built.
    The Republican campaign of 2016 is beginning to take shape.
    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was a flirtation of spring, the stolid, eager beaver who briefly intrigued GOP insiders and spiked in polls. They saw Walker as a potential bridge between the party's raucous, right-wing factions and its traditional corporate base.
    But Walker revealed himself to be a great first date -- a one trick-pony, belaboring his anti-labor record and promiscuously shifting positions on myriad issues to court Iowa's rich trough of social conservatives. A lethargic first debate performance hastened the breakup.

    Summer of Trump

    The spring fling gave way to the Summer of Trump.
    Before I comment, let me acknowledge that I have been the beneficiary of Donald Trump's generosity. A few years back, when I was running a campaign to shave off my mustache to raise money for research toward curing epilepsy, he was a major donor, for which I will always be grateful.
    The Donald lists as one of his childhood heroes, not a titan of business or politics, but Flo Ziegfeld, the Broadway impresario, whose Ziegfeld Follies once graced the Great White Way.
    Barging into the race with a rambling, bellicose diatribe in the gilded lobby of his eponymous New York tower, the carrot-topped builder-cum-reality TV star turned the Republican campaign into his own follies.
    What GOP candidates said without words
    What GOP candidates said without words

      JUST WATCHED

      What GOP candidates said without words

    MUST WATCH

    What GOP candidates said without words 03:30
    His red-hot nativist, nationalist braying struck a responsive core with the same Republican base that Sarah Palin thrilled in 2008 -- predominantly white, non-college educated Americans who have been caught in the switches of a changing economy.
    In a seemingly never-ending loop, eagerly conveyed by broadcast outlets who recognized a good carnival when they saw one, Trump's launched invectives against illegal immigrants, trade, China and Wall Street for the loss of good-paying middle-class jobs, and denounced the "stupid politicians" whom he says have let it happen.
    And he's gleefully greeted opponents, journalists -- and anyone else who has had the temerity to challenge him -- with acid put-down lines, delivered with the professional timing of a lounge act at one of his casinos.
    In an era in which so many have tired of political correctness and unsatisfying palliatives, Trump's "let me take care of it" bravado has found followers among those who believe he could run the country with the same snappy efficiency as he did The Apprentice.
    Dr. Ben Carson, a world-class pediatric neurosurgeon whose inspiring up-from-poverty story and evangelical vision have made him a favorite among the bountiful social conservative wing of the GOP, has emerged as a late summer favorite.
    But in Wednesday's debate on CNN -- a marathon that showed the prospect of stretching right into fall -- there were subtle augurings of the changing political season.

    Debate: Trump loses to Fiorina

    Trump, the current polling leader, positioned to his liking at center stage, turned in a now familiar performance, short on specifics, long on burlesque and laced with incendiary dog whistle appeals to his nativist flock. Yet the bombastic billionaire seemed to wilt in the latter stages of the debate as the temperature in a steamy Reagan Library plane hangar rose.
    He came out the loser in an exchange with the only woman on the stage, Carly Fiorina, whose face he had lampooned in a magazine interview. In an awkward bid for redemption, Trump called her a "beautiful woman," without a trace of awareness about how patronizing it came off.
    And he didn't quite measure up to the Air Force One set behind him when, in an answer to a question about how he would deal with the myriad challenges the U.S. faces with Russia, he implied that his force of personality would rule the day.
    "I will get along, I think, with Putin" Trump said, conjuring up an image of a kind of exclusive Narcissistic Potentates Club.
    Trump probably did enough to satisfy his most passionate fans, but not to add to them. One left the evening with the sense that his act may be on the verge of losing steam.
    Dr. Carson, whose numbers shot up in mid-September polls to approach Trump's, had an even more difficult night.
    Sharing the spotlight, Carson was, at times, as diffident as Trump was blustery. He seemed uncertain on some details and unwilling to commit on others, proving that presidential politics ain't brain surgery.
    Carson became an icon with social conservatives when he launched a jeremiad against President Obama's policies a few years back, and may retain their loyalty despite his uninspired performance. But the guess here is that his more casual supporters could slip away.

    Voters search for lasting relationship?

    So if the summer romances cool, where does the race go as voters search for something more durable?
    Fiorina, who fought her way from the junior varsity debate last time to the main stage, made the most of it and should get a boost in post-debate polls, perhaps at Trump's expense. But that will also bring new scrutiny to her controversial record as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard over which she skirmished with Trump on Wednesday. A greater challenge in the long run may be her stage demeanor, which was relentlessly grim. Impressive a presenter as she is, Fiorina will have to lighten it up every once in awhile. Few are hungering for the Unhappy Warrior.
    Another standout performer was Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose anemic polling barely qualified him to play varsity. In typically blunt language, he hit many conservative hot buttons. His recollections of 9/11, and his fear that he had lost his wife in the World Trade Center attack, were riveting.
    Still, Christie has a tough row to hoe. The ongoing bridge and Port Authority probes hang from him like an anchor. His self-styled narrative as a crusading ex-prosecutor is hindered by the fact that some of his closest aides are currently being prosecuted. And his Jersey, my-way-or-the-highway bluster isn't everyone's cup of tea.

    Center-right alternative

    There were four others on the stage who merit particular attention as the seasons turn.
    Someone is going to emerge as the center-right alternative to Trump and Carson -- or Sen. Ted Cruz, who is sitting back in the pack with a pile of Super PAC cash and boundless guile. (Just watch him run the Planned Parenthood defunding play in Congress in the coming days.)
    The three likely center-right contenders include Marco Rubio, who had another strong debate. He's an energetic and eloquent voice, particularly on national security issues from the hawkish side. With the exception of his lame explanation for why he has the worst voting attendance record in the Senate, he stood out.
    But Rubio also had a good debate in August and reaped little from it, leaving the question of whether Republicans would turn to a young, first term senator with an exotic name and an inspiring story in the post-Obama era.
    Gov. John Kasich earned his second straight Safe Driver Award, avoiding Trump-inspired pileups and other scrums to preach his Ohio record and sunny message of compassionate conservatism. (He didn't call it that.) The one-time Fox personality knows how to use TV, but unlike the August debate in Cleveland, where home town fans in a jammed arena cheered him on, Kasich received a friendly but more muted response Wednesday and sometimes seemed to be operating at a slower speed than the rest.
    Jeb Bush also started off slowly but finished with some good moments of warmth and self-effacing humor.
    Bush is afflicted with a little of his dad's affect and presentation style, which don't connote strength. And Trump keeps trying to stick the wimp label that hounded Bush 41 on the would-be Bush 45. His negatives are high, as is public resistance to dynastic rule, particularly in a time of anger about conventional politics.
    But Jeb also conveys a kind of warmth and genuineness that is hard to fake. And he is well-fortified between his campaign and the supporting Super PAC to run the full gauntlet.
    Fall officially begins Thursday. The leaves will begin to change -- at least in Iowa and New Hampshire. The tests will become harder, the voters more focused on long term relationships.
    Maybe the summer romances will endure, the beguiling outsiders will evolve to meet the heightened challenges and this already strange year will defy past experience.
    But don't bet on it.