The GOP debate: Can any Republican beat the celebrity candidates?

The big question in the Republican presidential nomination race is whether a traditional candidate—someone with government experience—will emerge in time to challenge and then defeat the celebrity candidates who have never spent a day in elected office but have been dominating the public’s attention and the polls so far.

Kasich’s opening statement laid down the predicate for the evening when he said, with evident exasperation, “We’re on the verge of picking someone who can’t do this job.”  Everyone knew whom he was talking about – Donald Trump and Ben Carson.  Neither one of them did much during the evening to prove that he could.  Carson intimated that he would somehow tax the entire gross domestic product – stunning anyone who knows anything about the tax code.  Trump did nothing to suggest that he was infusing his campaign with any more substance than he started with four months ago.  The third candidate without experience in elective office—Carly Fiorina—did nothing to build on her breakout performance in the previous debates and has probably passed her moment in the spotlight.

And so given the Kasich challenge – to find someone who could do the job – how did the rest of the group do?

Rand Paul continues to dominate the faction of Republicans with libertarian leanings.  Unfortunately for him, there aren’t very many, and he did nothing to expand his small beachhead in the electorate. 

Ted Cruz continued his patient strategy of positioning himself as Mr. Conservative; in particular, as the staunch social conservative and the person most likely to inherit the anti-establishment voters now flocking to Ben Carson if the surgeon’s campaign falters.  Cruz’s record of taking on not just Democrats but his own party leaders as well will stand him in good stead in a primary electorate intensely disappointed by the performance of Republican majorities in the House and Senate.  And his campaign leaves Mike Huckabee with little chance to regain the standing he enjoyed in 2008.

That brings us to the major imponderable in the Republican race—the four-way battle to lead the establishment conservative wing of the party.  The big loser was, once again, Jeb Bush, who seemed to fade away on stage.  By contrast, Chris Christie got himself back in the game with a crisp, forceful presentation that must have reminded many viewers why he emerged as a star in 2012. (He also got off the best one-liners of the evening.) John Kasich recovered from a lackluster performance in the previous debate by talking in a compelling fashion about his record as governor of Ohio and chairman of the House Budget Committee. And Marco Rubio continued to present himself effectively as the articulate, optimistic candidate of the future.

If the Republican nominating campaign belatedly moves past the celebrity candidates and returns to its traditional pattern, it could end up pitting the leader of movement conservativism against the champion of the establishment, and we could end up with an all Cuban-American final.  Alternatively, the Republicans could offer us someone with gubernatorial experience opposing a senator who lacks such experience.  But if the nominating electorate continues to turn its back on the entire leadership of its party, the 2016 Republican presidential nominee could end up testing the public’s willingness to entrust the Oval Office to an untried and unpredictable candidate.  Unless all the rules of American politics have been abrogated, the odds are against it.