Seasoned U.S. politicians trailing Donald Trump and Ben Carson for the Republican presidential nomination are eager to shift the campaign focus to the economy and policy in Wednesday's debate and expose what they see as weaknesses in the two front-runners.
But Republican voters see as their greatest strengths.
Jeb Bush and other candidates are trying to turn the tide in a campaign that is dominated so far by provocative rhetoric that has played to the strengths of Trump, a bombastic reality television star and developer, and Carson, a soft-spoken surgeon who has been gaining support in opinion polls....
"Provocative rhetoric" from Trump, sure; that's who he is. But Carson? How has he not been rhetorically trafficking in substantive discourse? Even if not all of it has been spot-on.
"If they run this thing well and push people to see if they're smart on the economy and job creation and how fiscal restraint fits into that, you could finally start separating the sheep from the goats on an important issue," said an official in the campaign of one of the Republicans vying against Trump.
Well, that's the rub, isn't it? What are the CNBC moderators more likely to do: "push people to see if they're smart on the economy and job creation and how fiscal restraint fits into that," or turn the third GOP presidential debate into another episode of Celebrity Apprentice? Prime time versus something that would air early on a Sunday morning on your local PBS station for a cable network that saw the gargantuan ratings bonanzas Fox News and CNN raked in. Boy, that's a toughie....
And remember, Trump will actually be physically present on that stage, so it really won't be up to the CNBC moderators in any case. Which is the built-in advantage of being a bombastic reality television star.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said the debate could pose a test for Trump and Carson.
"It requires them to no longer just glide by on attributes like being new and bold," said Madden, a former top aide to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Oh, yeah, Kev, THAT'll draw viewers in droves. Don't you get it yet? Seriousness is boring. Substance is extinct. It's all about entertainment now. American politics is American Idol. If Nero was playing a violin while Rome burned, 120 million American voters are playing kazoos while America suffers the same fate.
Which, of course, Ben Carson's rise to frontrunner status belies. But it's his "outsider" status - not knowing politics and the presidency from proctology - that really matters. To tweak Princess Leia's quote, "The more you try to inject substance into this campaign, the more this election will slip through your fingers".
God help us all.