Donald Trump speaks to Fox News Host Bret Baier, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Fox News)

Republican presidential candidates who assumed that “Trump Fatigue” would offer a path to the nomination have to be questioning their life choices.  

In the last three months, the former president has been indicted twice, sandwiching a jury verdict finding Trump liable for sexual abuse. Also, in the past three months, his standing in national Republican primary polls has grown even stronger.  

In surveys taken after his indictment for mishandling classified material, violating the Espionage Act, and obstructing justice, Trump’s average lead over his closest rival is 34 points. No non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate has been this dominant in polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses since George W. Bush in the 2000 primary, who led by well over 40 points in the latter half of 1999. 

While pundits and politicians often discount early polling as irrelevant, a clear frontrunner at the beginning of a presidential primary race tends to become the nominee. For Republican candidates in the modern primary era, the only one to lose after holding an early double-digit lead was Rudy Giuliani in 2008. He fizzled in late 2007 after accusations of billing municipal agencies for security costs of trips to the Hamptons with his mistress.  

Scandal has not affected Trump similarly, at least within the confines of a Republican primary. Indictments, verdicts, offensive comments, and even lost elections allow Trump to play victim against a Deep State-Democratic Party-mainstream media complex that must not be appeased.  

So, how can Trump’s Republican rivals take him down?  

I don’t have a panacea for what ails the likes of Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, but we can look back at the history of presidential primaries for clues. While there are few examples of come-from-behind primary victories, several longshot candidates have at least broken away from the pack amidst a sudden burst of media attention. Such moments are usually fleeting, but a dark horse has to start somewhere. 

Candidates do not enter the top tier by luck. Candidates make their moments.  

 For example, in the early years of social media, Mike Huckabee produced one of the first “viral” political YouTube videos. The former Arkansas governor summed up his border security plan in “two words: Chuck. Norris.” And the tough-guy television and movie star himself was by Huckabee’s side, vouching for his conservative bona fides, then stayed with him on the campaign trail.  

Before the ad’s launch in November 2007, Huckabee was lagging, garnering only single-digit support nationally and trailing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Iowa by about 10 points. Three weeks later, Huckabee eclipsed Romney in Iowa polls, and six weeks later, he won the state’s caucuses.  

Policy papers are rarely a springboard in Republican primaries. But Herman Cain briefly became the GOP 2012 frontrunner after flogging his signature “9-9-9” plan—a flat 9 percent federal tax rate on personal income and corporate income, and a 9 percent national sales tax. The plan was crucial to the former CEO’s surprise September 2011 Florida straw poll victory, which triggered a flood of news coverage and quintupled his standing in the Real Clear Politics average. (He dropped out about two months later amidst sexual misconduct accusations).  

In most cases, particularly in Republican primaries, the breakout moment is a debate clip.  

Then-Representative Michele Bachmann’s first debate appearance in June 2011 catapulted her into second place in national polling for the 2012 GOP nomination, thanks to a series of crowd-pleasing lines such as “President Obama is a one-term president.” She generated enough momentum from the forum to win the Iowa Republican Party’s straw poll in August

Four years later, neurosurgeon Ben Carson stole some of Trump’s spotlight during the August 2015 Fox News debate with an unexpectedly humorous closing statement. While listing what he has done that no one else in the race has done, he said, “[I’m] the only one to take out half of a brain, although you would think if you go to Washington that someone had beat me to it.” That’s all it took to ignite Carson-mania. Before the debate, most Iowa polls had Carson in single digits. By the end of the month, Monmouth University had him tied for first. By November, he led in the national Real Clear Politics polling average. 

But the thin resumes of Bachmann and Carson could not withstand the inevitable attacks that followed their rise. She dropped out before the Iowa caucuses, and he won precisely zero states.  

A potent debate maneuver for Republican candidates is to attack the debate moderators. During the 2012 primary debates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich routinely attacked the press. For a time, his jabs went unrewarded. Then one well-timed shot at the November 2011 CNBC debate kickstarted his sputtering campaign. 

At the famous “oops” debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry pledged to eliminate three federal departments but could only remember two. Perry was already fading in polls after his overhyped summer entry, as were Cain and Bachmann. Many conservatives were still searching for an alternative to Romney. Gingrich lectured that “the news media doesn’t report accurately how the economy works.”  

Asked by the moderator, “What is the media reporting inaccurately about the economy?” Gingrich condescendingly responded, “I love humor disguised as a question.” He then complained no journalist had asked an Occupy Wall Street protests, “Who is going to pay for the park you are occupying if there are no businesses making a profit?”  

A Frank Luntz-led focus group found nearly every participant before the CNBC debate was not for Gingrich but embraced him after, with the exchange about the media lighting up their dial meters. From mid-November to mid-December, Gingrich led every national poll. He lost that lead, then briefly regained it in January after another debate where he attacked the moderator, CNN’s John King, for asking about his ex-wife’s charge that he wanted an “open marriage.” Riding another wave of anti-media sentiment two days later, Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, though he would only win one more. 

Four years later, long flummoxed by Trump, Ted Cruz revived his campaign with his own Gingrich-esque mauling of the media. At the October 2015 CNBC debate, upon being asked about his opposition to that year’s bipartisan debt limit increase, Cruz ignored the policy question and unfairly chastised the questioner: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions—‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”  

The crowd went wild. The Texas Senator’s national support soon broke into double digits, and by December, he was in second place. A Morning Consult analysis concluded, “Cruz’s polling bumps appear tied most directly to his performance on the debate stage, rather than to paid advertising. Cruz’s campaign and its affiliated super PACs … have yet to begin a sustained advertising blitz on television or radio.” He even won the Iowa caucuses in February 2016. 

Gingrich and Cruz were more artful at attacking the media than they were at attacking Republican frontrunners with whom they shared the debate stage, which is why both were unable to take command of their respective primaries. For the lead to change, the leader usually must make a big mistake.  

For example, in the 2008 primary, both parties’ initial leaders stumbled in the fall of 2007. Giuliani’s reputation as a hero of the September 11 attacks became sullied by the scandal involving his mistress. On the Democratic side, during an October 2007 debate, Hillary Clinton was hammered for offering a convoluted position regarding driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Soon after, with Clinton’s veracity increasingly doubted by Democratic voters, Obama overtook her in Iowa polling. Furthermore, Giuliani’s record on abortion and gay rights, and Clinton’s support for the Iraq war authorization, put them at odds with their respective party’s base voters, making their early leads inherently tenuous. 

Today, the Republican frontrunner does not appear so vulnerable. Trump is already the most scandalous presidential candidate in history. He has already taken positions that at least used to be anathema to conservative voters. Yet his bond with base voters has proven astoundingly durable. His current lead, by historical standards, appears close to insurmountable. Giuliani lost his early lead, but he never had a margin of 20 points, let alone 30. Clinton came close to leading Obama by 30 in the fall of 2007. Still, once Obama won Iowa, African American voters abandoned Clinton in droves, allowing him to close that gap rapidly. No such large segment of Republican voters appears poised to shift abruptly.  

The conundrum for candidates not named Trump is that the issue at hand is Trump. Should Republicans ditch him because he’s damaged goods? Or should Republicans rally around him so he can slay the Deep State-Democratic Party-Fourth Estate hydra?  

The professional celebrity is an expert at making everything about him, making it exceptionally difficult for other primary candidates to introduce themselves, let alone sustain media attention. Expecting a cheeky ad, sober speech, or smart whitepaper to be a Republican rocket booster is laughably quaint.  

That leaves Trump’s foes with little option but to use a debate to draw blood. Trump knows this and would be foolish to give them the microphone.  

Knowing when to stop talking is not one of his great strengths, as he demonstrated in his interview this week with Fox News’s Bret Baier, where he handed belts of ammunition to federal prosecutors. But when it came to the politics of debates, Trump was cogent. 

He stopped short of refusing to debate, but he argued, “When you’re 40 points up … Why would I let these people take shots at me?”… Why would I allow a hostile network, Fox [and] people at 1 and 2 percent, and zero percent, to be hitting me with questions all night? You know, I don’t think it’s fair.” (Note that the Republican National Committee said candidates must reach one percent in multiple polls to earn a debate invite.) 

After echoing the complaints from Gingrich and Cruz regarding how mainstream media reporters conduct the debates, the Republican National Committee picked Fox News to host the first scheduled debate on August 23. Now Trump is saying Fox News is too hostile to be fair.  

While that’s absurd, the rest of Trump’s argument is uncomfortably airtight. Why allow your opponents to draw blood?  

The only reason to enter the arena would be if skipping it would lose votes. But If Katie Hobbs could narrowly win the governorship of Arizona without debating Kari Lake, then Trump should maintain a double-digit lead without debating Ron DeSantis.  

And if Trump skips debating DeSantis, why would an already floundering DeSantis subject himself to attack from the rest of the pack? 

Still, an “undercard” debate presents an opportunity for the longshots.  

Back in August 2015, the Republican field was so big that the first set of debates was divided into two tranches—one for the lower-polling candidates and one for the heavyweights. Despite being relegated to the undercard, former CEO Carly Fiorina, performed well enough that her polls improved. The following month, she scored an invite to the main debate event (where Trump sheepishly backed away from his previous comments disparaging Fiorina’s appearance.) She stalled out after that, but she did get a moment to prove herself.  

And a moment under the klieg lights is what the dark horses desperately need. Even if Trump does not debate, every other candidate starving for attention should debate anyway. After all, Chuck Norris won’t be coming to anybody’s rescue. 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.