02:10 - Source: CNN
GOP tensions rising as debate looms

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Alex Castellanos: The idea that you can't attack Trump in debate profitably is wrong; someone will do just that

He says the struggle now is over the 70% of the Republicans who are not backing Trump

Editor’s Note: Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is the founder of Purple Strategies and NewRepublican.org. You can follow him on Twitter @alexcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

At Wednesday evening’s Republican debate at the Reagan Presidential Library, we will learn little new about Donald Trump, but a lot about the alternatives. A few observations, before the fighters enter the ring.

1. Donald Trump took the lead in this debate before it started. He is the only Republican candidate with the presence to fill stadiums, dominate the news before debates and make them all about him. Trump has mastered the debate “pregame show.” Expect big Trump rallies before every debate.

2. In the backlash to 2012, the GOP donor class demanded that the Republican National Committee reduce the number of debates to protect weak front-runners like Mitt Romney. Congratulations, donor class. The process you wanted is now protecting Donald Trump and suffocating other candidates. After Wednesday night, there will only be four more debates before we start voting in February.

Alex Castellanos

3. Eventually, in elections, the cement sets. When a candidate holds a large percentage of the vote for a long time, many voters become too heavily invested to abandon their choice. Trump now has a base of around 30%. He is right when he says, “I’m not going anywhere.” Somebody hand Ted Cruz a Zoloft.

4. This nomination process is now about the other 70%.

5. Scott Walker is fading fast. His problem is not just that his voters have gotten to know Donald Trump, but that they have gotten to know Scott Walker. To date, Republicans have not been impressed. Walker is in danger of becoming the Rick Perry of this election.

6. John Kasich’s consultant, John Weaver, has an MO that has destroyed GOP candidates. Weaver distills his contrarian candidate into what that candidate likes best about himself, (“You, John McCain, are a maverick? No, you are a Super-Maverick!”) The candidate is happy, The New York Times writes glowing reviews, and 90% of the GOP walks away. Republicans want a nominee who will transform their party, but not into Democrats.

7. Carly Fiorina has the most room for growth in this debate. A strong performance could add 7 or 8 points to her ballot. Trump’s remark about Fiorina’s appearance has put Fiorina in an alpha-dog battle with The Donald. Voters expect resolution in this debate. In Fiorina, Trump may have his most worthy debate contender: Fiorina is as strong and smart as anyone on the stage.

8. It is not enough for Fiorina to be a right-wing mirror to Hillary Clinton. To rise to the next level, she must become an alternative to Trump, a populist business outsider who, unlike Trump, is stable and serious.

9. It has been raining at the Reagan Library. Somebody send Rand Paul out to get an umbrella.

10. It has been often noted that the outsiders, Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, are beating the insiders. We get it: Intense populist fervor to change Washington is driving this election. However, the conservative insiders, governors like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Bobby Jindal, can become outsiders, too. Their story is that they are agents of change, the very change GOP voters demand.

11. Bush’s mission should be to make that case in the debate. His message: “I governed as an anti-establishment, Reagan conservative in Florida. My record is proof. I’ll do the same in Washington.” Then, let the wheel turn.

12. This race is not as big as we think: There are only a handful of candidates who Republicans would trust to enter the Oval Office and sit in the Big Chair.

13. What Republicans don’t know about Jeb Bush is that his political inspiration is the man his father served as vice-president. This son of George H.W. Bush is also the son of the man whose library is hosting this debate.

14. Still raining. Somebody send Chris Christie out to get an umbrella.

15. Putin’s incursion into Syria and the migrant crisis in Europe will focus this debate more on foreign policy. That will be an advantage for Bush, Marco Rubio, Kasich and Fiorina, all of whom have a solid understanding of America’s role and responsibilities in the world.

16. Quietly, Ben Carson trudges on, a safe refuge for conservative Republicans in a Trumpian storm. This debate, Republicans will be looking for substance, to see if Carson can be a permanent destination, not just temporary shelter.

17. This is not an election about which candidate most feels our pain, but who has the strength to lead us out of it. After Barack Obama’s post-manly presidency, America is looking less for “soft-power” and “leading from behind” and more for a manly leader.

18. The paragon of manly strength is, of course, Donald Trump. But the idea that another candidate can’t take on Trump without being reduced to a smoking cinder is ridiculous. Wednesday night, some candidate will take on Trump and win.

19. It’s pouring. Somebody ask Donald Trump to make it stop raining.

20. Trump attacks women but they stay with him. In the past month, Trump has increased his share of the Republican women’s vote from 20% to 33%. Women interviewed at Trump’s Dallas rally have said they wish he would display more respect for women, but they still plan to vote for him. That’s a lot of codependence.

21. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are drawing massive crowds. So did Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Both won their nominations, then led their parties to massive electoral failure. “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” Intensity is usually inversely associated with broad appeal.

22. Soon it will be Thanksgiving. Then the campaign will be paralyzed by Christmas. One month later, we start voting. There is not much time left.

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