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What did you win in South Carolina?

February 21, 2016

Maybe not a hell of a lot.

Much as his supporters would like you to think Donald Trump has run the nominating table already, there’s still a lot of campaign left.

Breathless media accounts notwithstanding, Trump only got 32.5% of the vote. Given the size of the field maybe that’s OK, but it’s not a landslide.

His two closest rivals accounted for  for 45% of the  South Carolina ABT (Anybody But Trump) vote, while he has yet to crack 40% on his own. Add in the remaining 25% of the GOP vote and he’s still got a long way to go.

So far, the front-running Trump has been pretty successful appealing to emotion as his first-string strategy.

His opponents want to make this about the mechanics of the race.  It may still be too early to hit that note for the average voter.

It’s like Christmas. If your kid wants a pony, offering a parakeet because it’s more practical  doesn’t cut the mustard.

Realistically, the longer Trump can delay having to be specific, the more likely he is to continue winning. His supporters haven’t gotten to the point of asking how his presidency will help them individually. They just take it on faith that if America is great again, that will magically lift the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’s lot in life.

It’s enough for them that they believe he can do it, and they don’t really give a hoot how he does it.

Failure to recognize that has been the weakness in his opposing candidate’s strategic planning so far. Knowing voters are mad is one thing, capitalizing on it is another.

You’d think that at least the two closest challengers would have gotten the message by now, but maybe tradition runs too deep.

Voters on both sides are angry and scared, and not just about ISIS.  Both sides of the aisle see their very existence being threatened at least as much from within as by foreign invaders.

Speculating about who Trump might have in his cabinet at this point is not exactly the message the GOP voter wants to hear.

At some point the voters will start asking the harder questions, but it’s unlikely that happens before Super Tuesday and with Kasich still in the race, maybe not until the Ohio primary on March 15.

If he is still decisively on top after March 15, Trump may have to start trying harder to capture more of the remaining ABT vote but the timing here is critical  for his two closest rivals.

Although it’s hard for some to understand how two former Tea Party anti-establishment-backed  senators could now be the poster kids for the establishment vote, that’s where we are now.

The GOP  lanes are clearly occupied  by Trump the maverick, Cruz  the rigid right ideologue and Rubio, the perceived right of center moderate.

Cruz, for all of his camp meeting speaking style, really  showed his disagreeable side clearly in South Carolina.

Maybe SC voters are used to, shall we say misleading campaign tactics, but some of the Cruz ads just look sleazy outside the state.

Of the three, Rubio has the hardest message to sell, simply because being the wisest choice hasn’t closed the deal in eight years.

Rubio has hinted that he’s ready to try to pin Trump down on specifics. Since it’s unlikely that Trump will tip his hand at this point, Marco might want to look a bit closer at becoming the only ABT alternative, at least for the next couple of weeks.

Like it or not, Rubio is going to have to move farther right without becoming a Cruz clone.

The one thing he has going for him on the surface is that he is still the most likely to beat either of the Democratic candidates.

Trump comes with many built-in weaknesses for Dems to exploit. If you are already running against millionaires and billionaires, the Democratic campaign ads will write themselves if the opponent is Trump.

Cruz is a harder target, since he is technically a first generation citizen (although his mother was already a citizen at birth, which kind of negates that as a positive.) With his evangelistic style of delivery  and strict constitutionalist message, he has limited party crossover appeal for the secular voter, and thanks to Trump, there is the distraction of his Canadian birthplace.

Rubio should be the hardest to smear. Democrats need jobs too, and they don’t want to see their town shot up by terrorists any more than do Republicans or independents.

Rubio is a son of two immigrant parents. He  is less threatening to illegal immigrants than a Trump or a Cruz, but retains conservative support with his hard-line stand on border security, a point on which he has seemingly stood firm since taking office in 2010.

Rubio’s one flaw so far is that in trying to position himself for the general election, he sometimes seems to lose track of the fact that he has to beat all his other GOP rivals first.

Rubio has hinted that he’s ready to try to pin Trump down on specifics. Since it’s unlikely that Trump will tip his hand at this point, maybe Marco might want to look a bit closer at becoming the only ABT alternative, at least for the next couple of weeks.

As the slimmest possible second-place finisher in South Carolina,  it’s a given that he is going to draw Trump’s fire. Right now Trump can still take on his competition using birdshot, but make no mistake, he’ll know when to switch to rifled slugs.

Rubio’s challenge is to present the big picture without blurring the close-up shots.

Democrats have lately become like the promoters of clandestine cock fights and backroom dog fights, constantly shifting the location to whatever arena offers the best betting action with the least risk of getting caught. Their candidates are vying to be the president of whatever special interest can put them over the top.

Maybe special interest politics isn’t the message in 2016.

During CNN’s pre-SC Town Hall, only Marco Rubio said the words that so many voters want to hear, namely that he wants to the president of ALL Americans.

Against the backdrop of the divide-to-conquer politics of the 21st century, that’s likely to be a winning message.

From → op-ed

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