Tonight, the Republican party will hold a presidential primary debate, the last before the New Hampshire balloting on Tuesday. We know — at the very least from their over-the-top, desperate attacks on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie need to land near the top of the heap in order to say with a straight face they have a path to the nomination.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said he would leave the race if he gets “smoked” in New Hampshire. And Donald Trump needs a convincing win to prevent another loser meltdown of the type he had after coming in second in the Iowa caucuses.
Certainly, Rubio’s experience will come up. Bush and Christie have been bashing Rubio for having no accomplishments. In a Fox News interview Thursday, he retorted that “whether it was eminent domain abuse in Florida as the speaker [of the state House], whether it was V.A. reform, whether it was getting rid of the Obamacare bailout fund, whether it was additional sanctions on Hezbollah, whether it was doing the things we have done on the Girls Count Act to deal with human trafficking,” he can point to a number of accomplishments during a time in which Democrats held the majority until 2015. He then pivoted, “This campaign’s about the future. It’s not just about what we’ve done but what we’re going to do, and I’ve spent this entire campaign talking in real detail and, in specific, about what I’m going to do when I’m the president. We are going to get this country turned around, but first we have to win this election.”
It’s a dicey subject for the two governors to bring up “What have you done for me lately,” given Christie’s moment with President Obama on the days before the 2012 election and Bush’s absenteeism from the fights against the Obama policy agenda (until he decided to run for president). No one, come to think of it, has asked Bush, “Why didn’t you speak up and fight the Obama agenda?”
Bush and Christie need to be careful so as not to appear angry and unpresidential while making the argument they are uniquely qualified to be president. Rubio needs to keep his wits and have a ready answer to explain when he has been tested, what he has done and why his leadership is preferable to theirs.
As for Ben Carson, it is worth asking why a campaign in utter disarray that just laid off 50 staffers is not evidence of his poor management skills. He also should be asked if he did not start the confusion by suggesting he was going home after the caucuses.
Kasich has avoided the kind of tough questioning top-tier candidates normally receive. But in New Hampshire, he is in contention. There are still substantive questions to be asked:
How can you be in favor of keeping the Iran deal when it will allow Iran to get to zero breakout time in 10 years?
You say you are a budget expert, but you have put out no budget plan. Where is it, and how do you get to a balanced budget without raising taxes or cutting defense? Please show your math. How is expanding Medicaid a fiscally conservative move?
Let’s not forget, however, that Trump is the front-runner in New Hampshire — by double digits. He and his verbal sparring partner, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, should face some tough inquiries. Cruz said he wouldn’t insult Trump, but now reels off barbs. What changed other than polls?
Trump claims he deserves a do-over in Iowa. (Does he get those playing golf?) Isn’t this just sour grapes since he lost by more than 6,000 votes? Cruz apologized for the conduct of his staff but won’t fire anyone. How does this show he is determined to hold his people accountable?
Trump should explain why Cruz is wrong on National Security Agency data gathering (Trump is for a robust plan), while Cruz should explain why Trump’s stance toward Russia is misguided. Putin is now blocking a peace settlement in Syria and establishing a military beachhead there. Was Trump uninformed about Putin?
There is lots to talk about, but in their final debate before New Hampshire (the final debate of the race, no doubt, for some contenders), the candidates will have to decide if they want to leave the voters with a purely negative, nasty image of their candidacies.
Bush wanted to run with “joy” while Cruz vowed to avoid a “cage match” against Trump. What happened to those guys?
We will find which ones show up tonight.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.