Serious issues face Saturday night’s Republican presidential debaters in South Carolina, a state with deep-rooted military culture and home to a mass murder at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. But style is going to beg for attention alongside pressing matters of policy.
Foremost, how will Marco Rubio do after his disastrous turn on the stage in New Hampshire?
And will Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, after carping at each other bitterly from a distance, do it face to face?
Can Ben Carson finally make a mark?
You get the drift.
The Greenville, South Carolina, debate is hosted by CBS News and takes place, perhaps paradoxically, in the Peace Center.
We get it: Rubio says he believes that President Barack Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing” by making policy designed to change the country, a point the Florida senator robotically made over and over in New Hampshire even as rival Chris Christie – now gone from the race – tormented him about out. Rubio eventually acknowledged he blew it.
His fall from third place in Iowa to fifth place in New Hampshire confirmed that. Now, he has said, he doesn’t have the luxury of abstaining from the swipe fest between candidates. Look for him to engage.
But it’s tricky situation for him, not to mention one with huge pressure. How does he prepare for the debate when the big knock against him last time was that he was over-rehearsed?
KASICH, COMEBACK KID?
Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s second-place finish in New Hampshire vaulted him into contention after months of standing at the edge of crowded debate stages and participating whenever he could get a word in over the cacophony of Trump vs. everyone else. His challenge now is to use the exposure of the debate to build a campaign in South Carolina virtually from scratch and to emphasize a theme he previewed Friday: Building a political legacy should be based on implementing change, not “stopping stuff.” He’s hoping to stay viable until the race heads to friendlier territory for him.
Kasich didn’t single out rivals with the remark. But Cruz has become known for fighting against many things in Congress, chief among them the president’s health care law.
Rubio’s poor performance has created a potential opening for Jeb Bush, who has declared that South Carolina is where it all begins for him. He’ll need a solid showing in South Carolina given his prominent family’s political ties to the state.
At this point, Carson has little to lose by speaking up, and that’s what he plans to do.
“I’m going to be much more boisterous,” he said on Fox TV.
TRUMP vs. CRUZ
The two candidates with early-state victories under their belts may have the most to lose in Saturday night’s debate.
Their increasingly bitter duel has killed the one-time bromance between the two. Cruz released a television advertisement before the debate accusing the real estate mogul of a “pattern of sleaze,” spurring Trump to fire back on Twitter with another round of questions about his Canadian-born rival’s eligibility to be president. Although their rivalry was well underway before the New Hampshire debate, they largely stood aside from it, other than a few jabs here and there, as Christie took a rhetorical buzz saw to Rubio.
OH, THOSE ISSUES
There’s not a lot of daylight among the GOP rivals on gun rights, but the moderators might try to tease out some differences on the subject.
As well, expect questions relevant to the military-minded voters of South Carolina, home to The Citadel military college, Shaw Air Force Base and other important defense installations. The Republicans have tripped over themselves promising an expensive expansion or modernization of the armed forces.
And Rubio, for one, has expressed support for allowing women to serve in combat while saying he opposes forcing them to do so by making them eligible for any future military draft.