Consider this: Carly Fiorina, a onetime CEO of a large computer company (now polling at 2%) is suddenly showing up outside Hillary Clinton events
to grab the attention of the gathered press corps. And how does she do it? By staging an "availability" in which she takes on Clinton, completely unprovoked. As if to say: I am woman, hear me roar -- at another woman, as only I can. (We've come a long way, baby.) So please notice me -- which we are.
Or Rand Paul (polling at 7%), taking center stage in the Senate to oppose renewal of the Patriot Act in an anti-Big Brother, happily libertarian moment. Or appearing on MSNBC to say that the rise of ISIS is actually due to overzealous GOP hawks — an in-your-face move that takes his whole brand of noninterventionism to a different level — actually blaming Republicans instead of Obama.
Or Bobby Jindal
(polling at 1%) getting into the act by then proclaiming Paul "unsuited to be commander in chief." And make way for Chris Christie's two cents (and his 4% polling) to slam the GOP's anti-NSA surveillance gang as "misguided ideologues."
Such fireworks, and not even the Fourth of July. And from Republicans, no less.
I mean, what would Ronald Reagan think?
Actually, if Reagan were running he'd have to adjust his mild temperament to the Darwinian realities of GOPworld, circa 2016: First, a field that could grow to 15 candidates, or beyond. Second, all-important debates that start in August. The first crucial debate is sponsored by Fox News, which is limiting participants to those who rate in the top 10 in national polling. "So it's divide and conquer, right now," says one GOP pollster who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely. "In a field with 15 candidates, everyone is looking for a niche to get yourself out of the single digits and get a spot."
Think of the Hunger Games -- without the fun.
The game now is to become a hero to a group of Republicans nationally — and it can be small, since there are so many candidates in the mix — that pushes you to the top tier. It's the debate primary, and everyone has to play. So if Rand Paul is angering John McCain and GOP hawks, he's not losing any sleep over it. He is worrying about rallying his national GOP debate base: libertarians, younger voters and even minorities.
So while the candidates are out and about in Iowa and New Hampshire doing the "retail politics" in small groups we all love to talk about as the foundation of our great political system, they're now playing an equally pressing national game at the same time to qualify for a coveted debate podium.
Last time around, for instance, when former Sen. Rick Santorum won Iowa — albeit by 34 votes — he did it by virtually living in the state for months, becoming a known local quantity. But now he needs to figure out a way to show up in the national polls, too — and that's a problem.
The CNN debate rules in September provide somewhat less anxiety for candidates. We're having two debates, same night, back-to-back. One for the top 10, another for the second tier. Everyone on stage, but at different times. Even so, who wouldn't compete to have a podium alongside the top national contenders?
The irony is that the national polls — which we political types always like to say don't matter at this stage in a campaign — now actually do matter. Not because they are indicators of eventual victory of any sort (they're not), but because they will determine who will play where in the early debates. (Later debates could, of course, have different rules — and fewer candidates -- just to confuse us all.)
Sure, there's a certain unfairness in all this. If you're Jeb Bush, you can get all the national attention you want. The cameras follow you; there is no need to follow them. (See: Carly Fiorina.) And if you have been a regular contributor on Fox (See: Ben Carson, Gov. Mike Huckabee), you may have built-in name recognition. Which can also work the other way. (See: Donald Trump.) But for much of the rest of the field, there are no guarantees. So you become a candidate looking for a loyal contingent large enough to keep you viable in an oversized field. "Sad to say," says a GOP pollster aligned with a second-tier candidate, "the more outrageous you are, the more you have a shot."
And yes, a Republican just said that.