Seeing a long (really long) parade of presidential candidates forced to speak at length and in depth at Thursday's Republican Jewish Coalition forum provided a helpful side-by-side comparison of the contenders. With the latest CNN national poll (granted, less predictive than early-state polls), Donald Trump (36 percent) is far ahead and Ben Carson has collapsed (14 percent). Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at 16 percent, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at 12 percent, are the only other candidates in double digits. Jeb Bush is at a measly 3 percent, behind New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 4 percent.
Let's look beyond the polling, however, which is of questionable value, to see what the potential for each candidate may be.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who missed the RJC event due to votes in the Senate, was not missed by the audience. Applause greeted the announcement that he wouldn't be coming. Paul, along with George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and the lively Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is not really in contention for the nomination unless something radically changes. They may have other purposes for running - and can contribute to the debates - but they lack the message, the support and (I suspect) the money to run a credible campaign.
As was evident yesterday, Carson is so tragically over his head, still struggling to learn basic issues, that one could feel a measure of pity. He does not have the grasp of policy, especially on national security, to be a credible alternative. Voters see that, too, and he is sinking in the polls. At this point, he seems unlikely to win even in Iowa, his strongest state.
Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who once seemed interesting and potentially viable, just have not lived up to their potential. Mired in the back, they have yet to put forth a presidential-level agenda and message. Fiorina has not moved beyond platitudes although she is a polished presenter. Kasich is painfully tone-deaf. (Telling the RJC crowd his mother told him as a child to find a Jew for a friend because Jews are loyal - yes, he said it - was possibly the most cringe-worthy moment of the day.) Neither one seems to have momentum, and it is likely that after New Hampshire they will become non-factors even if they remain in the race.
So we are left with Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush and Christie. To discerning voters and to the media, Trump seems buffoonish and uncouth. His boast after the San Bernardino mass murders that his numbers "go way up" seems to encapsulate all the crudeness and narcissism we've come to expect from him. Nevertheless, he has learned to give the masses a good show and for now remains atop the polls, although how many of the poll respondents are actual voters remains in doubt. He will go on far longer than virtually everyone imagined and unless he drops out in fear of - or because of - an early loss will remain a barrier for Cruz.
Cruz is moving up in the polls but has a lower ceiling than Rubio. Cruz has been thrown on defense on national security. His accomplishments are slight. Now that Republicans passed an Affordable Care Act repeal (thanks to electing middle-of-the-road Republicans, not far right-wingers of the type Cruz champions), his 2013 stunt in shutting down the government looks even more ludicrous.
The way to win on conservative policy is not to create a spectacle, but to win elections. That's a very un-Cruz-like view, but recent events support it. Cruz is not outrageous enough to snatch from Trump his populist, angry base (his dodging on what to do with illegal immigrants has got him in trouble), and yet he is utterly failing to win approval from mainstream (either moderate or somewhat conservative) Republicans.
Cruz needs Trump to collapse; Trump is not cooperating. Cruz will need to top Trump somewhere early on, but his opportunities are limited so long as Trump takes the angry, anti-D.C. voters and Cruz has no sell with the mainstream plurality. Cruz has always been able to win by screaming loudly and putting down "RINOs"; it's unclear whether that will fly as a presidential contender.
That leaves the trio of candidates with mainstream appeal. Bush is struggling to find a formula that compels voters to take a second look at him. As he sinks in the polls, one can imagine his supporters have figured that it may only be a matter of time before they need to find a second choice.
Christie has hit his stride and has the most momentum of any Republican in New Hampshire. In early states, his favorable/unfavorable split has improved dramatically.
With each outing, Rubio looks more and more presidential. He would welcome a face-off with Trump, or better yet Trump and Cruz (dividing non-mainstream voters), but he'll have to beat back the rest of the field to consolidate his support.
Of these last three, any who fall back in the pack in New Hampshire will be on life support, facing increased pressure to drop out in order to allow more successful mainstream Republican contenders to consolidate support. You could see any one of them beating Trump or Cruz, but not if all remain in the race dividing the vote as Trump and Cruz compete for the far right.
No votes have been cast, and the race can take dramatic turns. It cannot be emphasized enough how unpredictive national polls are at this stage. Nevertheless, in a sense the field already has narrowed, with a small group of competitive candidates and then everyone else.