DEBATE PREVIEW: Can Ben Carson Keep Leveraging Dead Children to His Advantage?

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The third GOP debate kicks off tonight in Boulder, CO, and the stakes could not be higher for the fourteen Presidential hopefuls. This week’s topic: the economy. The Dig’s been watching debates since Gary Hart and Pat Robertson were on stage, so I know what the candidates have to do to win the big one.

Let’s see who’s smart enough to take my expert advice:

Dr. Ben Carson – The good doctor started off middling, playing second fiddle to Donald Trump. He got an unexpected shot in the arm when voters responded positively to his school shooting ruminations (“I would not just stand there and let him shoot me”). If Ben Carson was a quarterback and I was his coach, I’d be saying “Blue 42, dead kids!”

He’s gotta keep going to this well, whether it’s dead kids from the Holocaust, dead kids in shootings that should have formed a phalanx to attack the shooter, or just garden variety Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which the pediatric neurosurgeon knows a great deal about. If he does this effectively and with style, it’s Carson’s fight to lose, more or less.

Donald Trump – After posting big leads since the day he entered the race, Trump’s poll numbers are finally coming down to earth. The only possible explanation is GOP voters are fed up with Trump’s total disrespect for Beltway conventional wisdom. To regain his footing, Trump will need to respect the process and show some humility before the muscular DC press corps who, ultimately, will decide who wins the nomination.

He’ll also need to land a punch or two on his nearest rival, Carson. Unfortunately for the Donald, Dr. Carson doesn’t present an easy target in the GOP primary like Jeb Bush’s wife and kids. Trump’s campaign will need to dig deep to find something to attack Ben Carson’s wife with.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush – After two pitiful debate performances, Jeb has been forced off the middle of the stage to make room for his more dominant rivals. His campaign has yet to recover from the last debate when a sniveling Jeb begged Donald Trump to apologize to his wife, only to be shut down by Trump’s macho, captain-of-the-football-team attitude.

Republicans want a candidate they can feel safe with, someone who won’t stand idly by while some scruffy street tough or pierced-ear Millennial layabout in a band t-shirt successfully hits on his Tinder date, sticking him with the bar tab for all three of them. Voters see a feeble coward like Jeb and think if he can’t stick up for his wife, how is he going to stick up for Israel? I imagine Jeb has spent a lot of time over the past month sleeping on the couch and dreaming up the perfect comeback to put Trump in his place. If it doesn’t land, then it’s time for Jeb to pack up his chess set and anime DVDs and hightail it back to Florida.

Sen. Ted Cruz – Three words: stay the course. As my colleague Chris Cillizza noted, Ted Cruz is running the best campaign of anyone this year. He’s got the race locked up so long as he avoids any obvious pitfalls, like acknowledging that his rivals are human.

Gov. Chris Christie – Christie’s best debate moment so far has been when he thundered to a mewling Rand Paul, “the hugs that I remember are the ones I gave to the families who lost their people on Sept. 11.” For Republican voters, many of whom still care about 9/11, the image of this large and soft man moping around Lower Manhattan, doling out free bear hugs to strangers is a portrait of leadership and healing.

Christie needs to leverage his girth and hug expertise to recapture some of that magic. Maybe he can discuss the hugs he gave to laid off casino workers in dilapidated, meth-addled Atlantic City. Beating up on Rand Paul is usually a fan favorite. With their podiums side-by-side Christie might want to get physical and embrace this diminutive, screeching imp of a candidate. If Christie can stuff his corpulence over Rand Paul’s mouth and effectively block the libertarian Senator’s open sewer of shrill nonsense, voters are sure to give the governor a second look.

Sen. Rand Paul – This embarrassing locust-bodied cretin’s best shot at leaving the stage with his rectum intact is to avoid engaging, speaking of, or even making eye contact towards Trump or Carson. Other strategies this mock turtleneck-wearing mollusk can employ are hiding under the desk, crying openly about the Big Bad NSA, and praying that he’s mercifully struck down by God. Though it would be the just hand of nature culling its weakest creation, I’m told this guy has a family! But seriously, he doesn’t even deserve to be in the presence of these winners, much less even be alive.

Sen. Marco Rubio – Rubio’s problem is that the young, telegenic senator thinks he’s “above” the debates. The last two go-arounds Rubio simply came in, answered a few questions, and walked away. He failed to interrupt the moderators, beg for more time, or get into heated exchanges with his competitors.

Sorry, Senator, but that attitude won’t fly. If you want to win the nomination you need to go whole hog on the debates. You need to whine that the moderators are biased, take a rhetorical whizz on anthropomorphic urinal cake Rand Paul, and answer the cutesy bullshit questions like “What candy bar are you?” and “What’s your spookiest nightmare?”

Everyone here — from the guy who mops up the stage sweat to the genius political writers who pick the night’s winners and losers — everyone here works too goddam hard for you to act like you’re too cool for school, for you to pretend that the debates “don’t factor into your campaign plan.” You got that, Marco? Now what’s you’re favorite f**king season of Game of Thrones?

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee – Huckabee’s campaign has gotten no traction whatsoever despite the candidate’s appeal to the religious right. He’d better hope his God is as powerful as he says because Huckabee needs divine intervention to break out of the bottom tier.

The Christian minister needs to double down on his faith and pull out all the stops. That means snakehandling, speaking in tongues, burning a pyre of pagan icons — whatever ritual Huck needs to call upon his God’s favor and get him through two hours of grilling about the economic issues he knows nothing about. Also, a quick dose of diuretics wouldn’t hurt: the governor famous for shedding pounds almost as quickly as he shed mothers off welfare rolls, looks just plain fat.

Gov. John Kasich – With Jim Webb out of the race, the demand is higher than ever for an aggressively moderate man’s man who looks like he just rolled out of a refrigerator box. While he lacks Webb’s rippling forearms, military heroics, and dynamo charisma, Kasich more than makes up for it in scrappiness. In contrast to, say, Donald Trump’s Michael Vick-style quarterback, Governor Kasich is a cerebral hit-the-books kind of player like Tim Tebow.

Sen. Lindsey Graham – The former Air Force officer has to sit on the tarmac and play a game of hurry up and wait. That is, wait till the poll numbers catch up with reality and jettison the smooth-talking southern lady’s man towards the front of the pack. Meanwhile, he can hang back and strategically snipe at frontrunners like Carson and Trump, picking his shots carefully while his sinewy, muscular frame is hidden in the brush. The only question is, will this notorious rogue slip his number to CNBC smokeshow Becky Quick?

Carly Fiorina – The former HP CEO had a breakout moment at the last debate when she shut down Trump’s attacks on her appearance with a brassy comeback. This may have helped her in the short term among female voters, but it certainly hurt her among some middle aged males I know who viewed Carly’s withering stare and voice, and felt the terror of emasculation.

Obviously the GOP is in the mood for a shrewd businessperson, but the male voters mentioned above told me they are terrified by the idea of a cold female politician who reminds them of someone who would mercilessly rend both their wallet and their heart in divorce court. If Ms. Fiorina wants to regain momentum she needs to use her opening statement to apologize for attacking Trump at the last debate. Also, a few well-placed tears might help depict a human-like relatability that the Beltway craves in female candidates.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Gov. George Pataki, and former Sen. Rick Santorum will be facing off in the undercard debate right before the main event. Alpha male Lindsay Graham is likely to be the winner of this skirmish, so this is really a battle for second place. Jindal might suffer from being unrested as word is his camp has spent many sleepless nights in debate prep, reviewing hours of footage and figuring out how to get one over on George Pataki. Jindal just can’t suffer another debate loss to the hulking former New York governor.

To see who takes The Dig’s free advice, tune in to CNBC tonight at 8 PM, and follow @carl_diggler on Twitter for my livetweet of the action.

Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman.” Got a tip for The Dig? Email him at carl@cafe.com or Tweet @carl_diggler.