WASHINGTON - Billionaire Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican presidential field, according to the latest polls. But Trump’s lead shrank a bit in two national polls this week (CNN-ORC and Quinnipiac University) after his rivals confronted him in last week’s second Republican debate.
Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina's popularity has surged after she called out Trump during the debate on recent comments he had made about her.
Despite his slippage, it’s clear that Trump remains the central figure in the Republican race, and he continues to cite his poll numbers as he campaigns around the country.
“I will fight for your liberty like nobody can fight, because I’m a good fighter, I will tell you that,” Trump told supporters recently in Iowa. “I am a good fighter. And I win. I really win a lot and we will win.”
Last week’s second Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California did seem to mark a turning point in the race. Trump’s rivals were no longer hesitant to attack, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who clashed with Trump several times, including one exchange over Trump’s efforts to bring casino gambling to Florida while Bush was governor.
“He wanted casino gambling in Florida,” Bush said during the debate, which brought a sharp retort from Trump.
“No, I didn’t; that’s totally false,” he said.
Bush continued, “And you didn’t get it because I was opposed to casino gambling before, during and after! And I am not going to be bought by anybody.”
Trump responded by saying, “I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”
Bush is one of several establishment candidates who have suffered at the rise of outsiders like Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former business executive Fiorina.
Year of political outsider
Trump is no stranger to criticism, with his remarks about illegal immigrants and insults directed at his rivals; but his resilience in the polls once again suggests his supporters are willing to stick with him through thick and thin.
“The people supporting Trump, angry populists, look at politicians who know all the details of policy, who speak in shades of gray, who offer all kinds of qualifications, and to them that is the worst of it. That is what has led to the problems that they see out there where their own leaders have abandoned them,” said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Ornstein said something else was on display during last week’s contentious debate.
“What I saw was an ongoing struggle for the soul of the Republican Party between an establishment group that itself is very conservative, and an insurgent group — people who are outsiders, anti-establishment, many of whom have never held office — who are now dominant forces,” he said.
Establishment fights back
That battle is far from over, according to University of Virginia scholar Larry Sabato. He warned in his weekly political newsletter that establishment Republicans still see Trump as a threat to the party’s fortunes in next year’s presidential election.
“They see him as an unserious narcissist whose harsh focus on illegal immigration has severely set back efforts to woo Hispanic and Asian Americans," he said. "You had better believe that GOP leaders will do everything in their power, mainly behind the scenes, to ensure that Trump is not their standard-bearer.”
Fiorina is on the rise in the polls after her debate performance, and Carson remains at No. 2 in most surveys. It was a different story for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, though, a favorite among some establishment Republicans.
Walker quit the race and encouraged some of his former rivals to do the same to ensure that Trump will not get the nomination.
“So that voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current frontrunner,” he said.
Pitfalls of inexperience
Carson tried to remain above the fray in the wake of the increasingly testy Republican race.
“People like juicy stuff [clashes]; they like gladiator fights. And that is not helpful to us in this nation,” he said.
Carson had a difficult week, however, as he tried to fend off criticism after he initially said he could not support a Muslim becoming president, then tried to back away.
The latest polls show Fiorina and Carson vying for second place behind Trump, with the first contest in Iowa still more than four months away.
Another contender experiencing a lift after the second debate is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has stepped up his criticism of Trump and openly questioned the billionaire's fitness to be commander-in-chief.
Walker’s speedy exit from the race is a cautionary tale for the rest of the Republican field. It suggests to those who remain they need to be mindful of the intense yearning among many conservatives for an outsider who will shake up the race for the White House in 2016.