BOULDER, Colo. — For the past month, John Kasich has lamented that the last Republican presidential debate was merely a “demolition derby” that pushed him to the grandstands because he refused to take part.
Now the Ohio governor seemingly has kicked out the glass of his campaign car and is revving up the engine for tonight’s debate in the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado.
By debuting a newly aggressive campaign style during a debate send-off Tuesday in Westerville, Kasich is demonstrating that he has grasped one key fact about the topsy-turvy 2016 presidential race: Confrontation sells.
And that’s important to a low-in-the-polls candidate about halfway between his official entry into the race and the first ballots being cast.
Just look at the ratings for the first two confrontation-heavy debates. Or compare the coverage Kasich caught Tuesday calling some of his rivals’ ideas “crazy” vs. what he received when he rolled out his plan about two weeks ago in New Hampshire to balance the federal budget, cut taxes, achieve energy independence, and cut billions from the growth of Medicare and Medicaid.
The push for confrontation among the candidates likely will continue tonight.
CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla, one of the three moderators for tonight’s prime-time debate, told POLITICO to expect “fireworks” at least as big as during the previous debates.
“The fires are going to get stoked and it is the moderators’ job to make sure those fires don’t die,” Quintanilla said.
The question of the day is how well Kasich’s new strategy will play in a debate that seemingly already was focusing on his strong suit, the economy.
Will the governor, who still doesn’t mention his opponents by name, call their ideas crazy to their face?
Since many in the public — and media — agree some of the GOP candidates’ ideas are crazy, Kasich is apparently counting on a bounce by serving as a blunt truth-teller.
But while this debate will have 10 instead of 11 on the prime-time stage, it will last only two hours instead of the three for the Reagan Library event. That means Kasich likely will have limited time to demonstrate his more aggressive strategy — so he will have to make the most of every moment, every word.
The danger is that as the candidate with the most government experience, Kasich will get caught in the crossfire of the outsiders whose disparagement of “insider” politicians has so far proven catnip to voters. And after Tuesday’s debate send-off in Westerville, his opponents now know he’s coming after them.
They could choose to question his conservative credentials by citing his unapologetic support for expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, for agreeing to the Common Core educational standards and for backing a pathway to legal status for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The other candidates might point out that for all of Kasich’s bragging about turning Ohio’s economy around, the state’s job growth rate consistently falls below the national average.
Or someone like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has released income tax returns and extensive communications from his time as governor, could criticize Kasich for so far refusing to show his 1040’s and for an administration that regularly battles releasing information to the public.
Of course with Trump on the stage, Kasich may get slapped for everything from his haircut to his tenure at now-defunct Lehman Brothers (which employed Bush, too).
It will be important for Kasich to make his criticisms in a way that doesn’t simply sound like a desperate, low-in-the-polls candidate struggling to rescue his campaign.
While Kasich, like many experts, question the worth of national polls at this point in the campaign, he has acknowledged that they affect his fund-raising ability. Potential donors want to know they are giving money to someone who could actually win, not just to a noble cause that winds up going nowhere.
Kasich is making his move at a time when the GOP race is in a state of flux.
Trump’s repeated emphasis on his poll performance is now being tested by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has overtaken the billionaire in Iowa and leads the latest national poll. Trump, who has said that he will drop out if he’s no longer a winner, has expressed bewilderment at the latest developments. He has stepped up his criticism of Carson — even for his Seventh-day Adventist faith.
The soft-spoken Carson is rapidly advancing, although he may have to demonstrate a greater grasp of the issues if he is to be regarded as a potential president and not just a nice guy with good character.
Meanwhile, Bush — the guy who many thought would run away with the 2016 race — also is re-positioning his campaign. He met with family members and donors in recent days, but critics say if Bush doesn’t start performing like the top-shelf candidate he was supposed to be, his candidacy is in danger.
One of his biggest threats is his fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio has delivered a pair of debate performance that generally won good reviews. But there are question marks about his campaign, much of it bankrolled by dark money, and about why Rubio so frequently avoids the press. Bush supporters are reminding Republicans that Rubio’s lack of experience mirrors that of Barack Obama when he ran for president.
But Rubio’s numbers remain strong, while the darling of the debates, Carly Fiorina, has almost faded from sight. She will be under pressure to deliver another strong performance tonight, and this time translate it into lasting results.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the former Princeton debate champ, is finding his appeal to conservatives limited by Trump and Carson. He likely will make the case this evening against the new federal budget deal struck in Washington.
Many analysts are dismissive of several GOP candidates even though they made the main debate. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul supposedly is in free fall and being called back to his home state to defend his Senate seat; New Jersey Chris Christie still talks the talk but can’t overcome the perception that his time has come and gone; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s appeal is considered too narrow to get beyond his current single-digit poll numbers.
Kasich isn’t the only Republican expressing frustration with the state of the presidential campaign.
Bush said, “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who barely even qualified for the “kid’s table” debate tonight, said, “You’ve got the No. 2 guy (who) tried to kill someone at 14, and the No. 1 is high energy and crazy as hell. How am I losing to these people?”
This article was written by Darrel Rowland from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.