In the aftermath of the first presidential debate among the numerous Republican candidates, the various contests that will determine who are the main contenders for the nomination are beginning to take shape. Just as no battle plan ever survives the first engagement, no amount of punditry can ever predict the permutations and ripples that flow from the first debate.
Nominating contests are akin to the Wimbledon tennis tournament, with quarterfinals, semifinals and the final. The Republican Party is composed of a layer cake of different constituencies. So to nominate a candidate, each of these diverse groups holds, in effect, its own quarterfinal to decide on its favored candidate. Then the top two fight it out in the semifinals to go on to the finals held in November.
This year, there are three identifiable quarterfinals (pardon the math).
The first pits Donald Trump against himself. He is so far ahead of his rivals that the only person who can stop his ascent into the semifinals is himself. If he blunders or his rhetoric escalates to a point where he genuinely offends the voters, he could trip up.
But, otherwise, he earns a bye in quarterfinals and goes to the semis.
Will the Donald falter? So far, each sassy, intemperate comment has only boosted him in the polls. There is a chance that his success turns his head and tempts him to go into dangerous territory.
But its not likely. Donald is a skilled media performer who is, after all, a television professional. While far from conventional, his comments are based on a thorough knowledge of world events and an even deeper understanding of his own convictions.
He doesn't shoot from the hip. Each move has been well practiced in his mind dozens of times before it leaves his mouth.
In the semifinals, Donald will meet a challenger from the other two quarterfinals: The one for the establishment candidate and the other for the conservative one. In the semis, he will meet more specific challenges over particular issues and could be defeated. His nomination by the Republican Party is neither impossible nor pre-ordained. He will have to and might just earn it.
But first his opponents must emerge from their quarterfinals.
Among the establishment/mainstream candidates, it has always seemed that Jeb Bush would dominate. His vast fundraising success seemed to have blown away his possible rivals. But the debate made it clear that this progress was illusory. It is not going to be enough for him to show his bank account to ward off challengers. He is going to have to actually spend his money on media defining his differences from his rivals to clear his way to the semifinals.
The biggest obstacle in Bush's path that has emerged is Chris Christie. Left for dead because Bush out-raised him in the financial primary, the New Jersey governor demonstrated a Trump-like capacity for confrontation and a direct, feisty appeal. His humbling of Rand Paul in the debate gave us a good foretaste of what lies ahead. (Paul shot a blast of hot air saying that he wanted the NSA to collect more information on terrorists and less on American citizens. Christie's comeback how can you tell the difference before you check it out was devastating.)
For his own part, Jeb appeared lackluster. He said the right words about conservative approaches to the economy and defended his own record well, but there was not the passion and commitment that helped to propel his brother to the 2000 nomination. He did not dominate. Even apart from Trump, he did not dominate.
And John Kasich also came out of nowhere to offer opposition to the Bush monopoly. His defense of his expansion of Medicaid, while liberal, certainly indicated that he has running room in the GOP primary.
But, that said, Bush will probably win his quarter final round against these two newcomers.
On the conservative side, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee stood out. The real loser was Scott Walker who had benefited from a mini-boom going into the debate. Walker, riding the strength of his vast achievements in Wisconsin where he tamed the teachers union, had taken an early lead, but, like Bush, he seemed to underwhelm as the evening progressed. But the real damage to his chances occurred when he was asked about his support for immigration amnesty in the previous decade. He had no good answer, and his change of mind appeared unconvincing. Cruz, pouncing, spoke of "election year conservatives" and pointed to his own continuous opposition to giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Walker will have a hard time overcoming the amnesty issue now that Trump has brought immigration to center stage in the Republican primaries.
Cruz articulated his issue positions very well. He left no doubt that he will implement them should he be elected and his "consistent conservatism" stood in sharp contrast to that of Bush and because of amnesty Walker.
Huckabee's performance was extraordinary. His passion on protecting Social Security and his advocacy of the fair tax set him apart and really laid the basis for a populist positioning. In a party committed to raising the retirement age, Huckabee will stand out and soar as he opposes the latest budget plans of Paul Ryan.
By contrast, Rubio was long on style but short on substance. He did not define himself in any way, and his support of the "gang of eight" immigration reform will weigh him down in the primaries.
So, look for Cruz and Huckabee to move out ahead of Rubio and Walker among conservatives.
Look for Bush to have to work hard to defeat Christie and for him to sink in the polls. And look for Donald to make it to the semifinals on his own.