Every televised presidential debate seems to be the most important of the race at the precise moment it occurs.
But tonight’s six-man bout at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC, which will air on CBS, truly does hold significance.
February was never about selecting the GOP nominee – it was about survival.
To date, a 17 candidate field has narrowed to six, exactly 13 days after voting began.
How many candidates will survive this month?
Tonight’s debate will go a long way to answering that question. There is a sense of urgency and pressure for all of the candidates.
Here is what each candidate needs to do tonight:
- Donald Trump – Trump’s large victory in New Hampshire puts the wind at his back, with new confidence after his demoralizing second in Iowa. His campaign continues to march to its own beat, holding massive rallies across many states, rather than focusing on the most immediate contest. Tonight, Trump needs to continue to show improvement, not by attacking other candidates, but by showing restraint. He should continue to focus on his two best messages: shutting down illegal immigration and improving trade deals. He will surely defend himself, and I expect him to be under attack (on eminent domain, on health care, on his vulgar language, etc.). Can he pass the Commander-in-Chief test? Few states are as pro military as South Carolina. Can he convince the state’s GOP evangelical voters that he shares their values? He enters tonight as the frontrunner and needs to end the night in the same position.
- Ted Cruz – Cruz remains the strongest ’non-Trump candidate’, as Charles Krauthammer stated this week. South Carolina fits his candidacy more like Iowa did, rather than New Hampshire. He needs to demonstrate that he is a credible Commander-in-Chief tonight. He needs to raise doubts about Trump’s readiness and reliability. Cruz has the conservative lane to himself, so he should defend himself from attacks, but also work on his likability deficit. He did this masterfully at the last debate when he spoke movingly about his late half-sister’s ill-fated bout with drug addiction.
- Marco Rubio – No candidate has more at stake than Rubio. As he said this week, for 99.95% of all the debates, he has been excellent. His robotic repetition at the last debate stalled his momentum in New Hampshire and set his campaign back, raising new questions about readiness and authenticity. Tonight I expect him to be much sharper, with focused attacks on Cruz and Kasich, and ready to give as good as he gets from Jeb. Expect him to sell his foreign policy knowledge. Rubio’s comeback narrative must start tonight.
- Jeb Bush – Jeb is “not dead” after New Hampshire. But a pulse is not a path to the nomination. He needs to kill the candidacies of Rubio and Kasich in South Carolina to make it a three-man race for Super Tuesday. Bush needs to unite the “non-Trump/Cruz wing” to regain a path to the nomination. I expect him to go after both Trump and Rubio tonight. Can he do so effectively?
- John Kasich – Kasich is getting a first look nationally following his strong second in New Hampshire. He was the hot candidate late and his persistently positive campaign benefitted him, contrasting him with all the mudslinging. Tonight he will not get a free ride. Expect him to finally be forced to answer for expanding Medicaid by executive order over his GOP legislature’s objections, his support for a path to citizenship and his support for Common Core. He has an economic good story to tell in Ohio. Can he tell it effectively tonight while under attack?
- Ben Carson – There is no reason for Carson’s continued candidacy. He took five days to get from Iowa to New Hampshire and spent the entire week whining about perceived indignities done to him by Cruz’s campaign. Despite massive fundraising, he’s laid off 50 staff recently. The end is near and South Carolina is his last hope. Tonight, the reasonable standard of conversation fluency in English as it relates to foreign policy would be an accomplishment.
Trump remains the frontrunner in South Carolina, but Cruz has a real chance to make it very competitive.
Jeb, Rubio and Kasich are all competing to be last establishment candidate alive.
Tonight’s debate matters.
Matt Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant, and a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.